Nice, France: A Commoner’s Nice

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Luxury shapes the popular image of the French Riviera or Côte d’ Azur (Blue Coast), more so its largest city Nice. After all, monarchs from England were the first to appreciate the south of France as an ideal retreat, followed very soon by the world’s most celebrated artists. To a degree, there’s a truth to the luxury part. A journey to Nice requires travelers to be financially prepared, and justly so, because the experiences Nice can give are priceless. But take it from a 9-6 writer-to see the real Nice, you need not be blue blooded or have won a Pulitzer.

From simply not knowing which finely crafted yacht figurine I should get, to getting filled by the healthiest lunch I’ve ever tasted; from riding a double decker bus which had me in sweeping arms length of oranges and olives dangling from tree branches, to being transfixed before the first work of a master- these are moments worth their every second. And in Nice, where the laid-back disposition of the people somehow can stretch time to illusory infinity, I got my handfuls of priceless seconds.

My journey to Nice, with the assistance of Air France, saw me crossing half the globe from Manila (with connecting flights from Hong Kong and Paris). The long haul flight was made comfortable by the hearty meals and inflight entertainment given by Air France. The flight practically served as my initiation into the French way- beef bourguignon (burgundy stew), tangy cheeses and champagne gave me enough warmth while falling asleep to John Coltrane smoothly playing from my headset. On my departure flight, I savored the Air France pampering a little bit longer, as if clutching on to my last strains of Nice. Now, let’s see what of Nice has lingered with me.

The beach

While Nice offers more of a pebble beach instead of a fine sandy shore, there’s something about this seaside that is irresistible. By the sea, the air is at its mildest and freshest. And the light from the blueness of the the Mediterranean Sea right in front- a blueness mirrored by often cloudless skies over it-gives a soft sheen on everything it illuminates.

This air and this light are the draws of the Promenade des Anglais (Promenade of the English), the long stretch of walkway that runs parallel and right above the beach of the Bay of Angels, part of the Mediterranean Sea. On this promenade, runners run from morning until night, cyclists train non-stop, and skateboarders and skaters cruise. I regretted not packing my running shoes in my little luggage, because Nice offers the perfect climate for training. No need to wake up before sunrise so as not to be burned by high noon heat, because along the beach, and in the whole of Nice, the weather is comfortably cool the entire day.

More characters come out at different times of the day. There were afternoons when I saw school kids with their teachers drying their paintings on the ground. Fashionable girls strolled along with their fashionable dogs. Backpackers can’t decide where to look at the sea or at the strip of the seaside hotels like the iconic Hotel Negresco, and the most expensive of them all according to locals, the Palais de la Mediterranee. I had my share of watching a teenage couple kissing on a bench. And one sunset, just as I was wondering why I have not seen any swimmer or sunbather yet, I saw an elderly couple remove their white robes near a row of fishermen waiting for their lines to catch some sea bass. The couple was in matching blue swimwear, and while holding  hands, walked towards the water.

The Arts

MAMAC to the locals, the Musee d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art) houses artworks of Nouveau Realisme (New Realism) and Pop Art Americain (American pop art). The museum is open to the public for free and is right at the heart of the city, surrounded by the city theatre, a museum on natural history, and the municipal library with its landmark “square head” building. This position symbolizes a crucial trait of Nice – a nurturing  city for artists, writers, and thinkers.

One need not be deeply educated in the arts, though, to appreciate MAMAC. You will see magic if you want to, and I did. Children played right under Daniel Spoerri’s dangling Foire aux puces (1984) an assemblage of objects such as doll heads, mannequins, hats, and canes. Other guests flocked over the headlines of Arman’s accumulation informative 16 November 1969 which is a glass framed assemblage of the New York Times newspaper for that date. The headlines in the time capsule spoke about the role of the middle class being vital in a new city master plan, 250,000 war protesters staging a peaceful rally in Washington, and Apollo 12’s flight towards the moon.

The legendary French sculptor, painter and filmmaker Niki De Saint-Phalle has an entire wing for her works. Her big and animated sculptures fill the spaces with whimsy. I loved her ironic and charming Coeur de Vieille bigote ou coeur blanc (1964) (Heart of Old Bigot, or White Heart) – a heart-shaped grayish white ensemble of wire mesh, figurines and other assorted objects, the most memorable of which is a faintly smiling mask peering right through the also-heart-shaped hollow center.

The Matisse Museum, located all the way north of Nice, resides in a world of its own. It stands on a field of olive trees lined by streets with names like Alle Miles Davis (Miles Davis Alley). Although the museum is also open to the public for free, picture taking is not allowed. My notebook came in handy and bore the following figures: the museum has 10 rooms, 68 paintings and paper cutouts, 236 drawings, 218 engravings, and 57 sculptures which comprises almost his entire sculpted work.

Version four from his Blue Nudes series of gouache-painted paper cutouts reside in the museum. Matisse’s cutouts are outstanding for being playful yet classic, just as Blue Nude IV is with is loose and relaxed bod lines yet solid basic color. This was Matisse in his last years in Nice, persistently creating art despite being in a wheelchair and unable to paint. But the star of the museum for me is Matisse’s first ever canvas, Nature morte aux livres (Still life with books). He painted it at the age of 20, after receiving a set of art supplies from his mother during a period of recovery from illness. It would be nearly 30 years before he relocates to the Nice suburb Cimiez, to carry out his last works.

Back to the bay area, there is Musee Massena, known for its 19th century architecture. The most memorable painting among the royalty portraits that deck its halls is that of Queen Victoria, whose fondness for Nice helped in raising its popularity as one of the world’s first resort places.

The nearby Musee des Beaux Arts is suited for those who wish to see mostly biblical, mythological, and allegorical paintings from the 1800’s. But the must-sees here are of the seductive vein, like  Auguste Rodin’s Le Baiser (The Kiss), a massive marble sculpture of a naked couple in a loose yet affectionate embrace while kissing, and the Nice-born museum curator and printmaker Gustav-Adolf Mossa’s symbolist paintings, discovered only after his death. As I walked out of the museum, I carried in me radical images of his hoofed and horned angels crowning Salomon, and Bathsheba cuddled next to David in a priest-like garb.

The Food

If you want to have the best breakfast in Nice, you need not spend a fortune. Al Fresco cafes in almost every street offer freshly baked buttery croissants, perfect with brewed coffee. I drizzled my every croissant bite with strawberry jam all the time and dropped the choco bean in my coffee for that extra kick.

Nice locals usually lunch past 1 PM, I was told by a waiter, which means that if you’re used to having lunch at 11 or 12PM, chance are you’d be lunching alone. Rue Massena is one street lined by a wide array of restaurants serving lunch and dinners. Here I tried La Stekia’s pizza with tomato, cheese, ham, mushroom, olives an artichoke heart, and was filled with just a couple of slices. Servings in Nice’s restaurants are big and it’s a common sight to see people consume entire pizzas on their own. There is also an abundance of Italian food everywhere, which should not be surprising given Nice’s Italian roots, being formerly part of the Kingdom of Sardinia.

In one of my lunches at Milo’s, I wanted to try something purely Nice, so I pointed to a salad called La Nicoise in the menu. Just to make sure, I asked the waiter what it was, and with a smile he said it’s the local salad, so I gave it a go. It was one huge bowl of healthy goodness: sweet peppers, celery, cucumbers, olives tomatoes, sliced boiled egg, tuna and anchovies. The contrast of salty anchovies and the sweet peppers was delectable and the greens were crunchily refreshing. The simple local salad, reflective of the bounty of the Mediterranean, was the best meal I had in Nice.

Snack time can be anytime as long as you keep walking on. The landmark shop of Alziari, which opened in Rue St. Francois de Paule way back in 1936, offers olives of every kind, from olive oil sprays, to glossy jars of olives filled with pimientos or flavored with thyme or oranges. Olives filled with anchovy cream or drizzled with basil can be bought in scoops and are ready to eat. I stepped out of the shop munching from a bagful. By the time I got to reach the department store Galeries Lafayette in Avenue Jean-Medicin, I had no more room for the macarons they sell at the ground floor. These are designer macarons in a dizzying string of colors, with flavors ranging from the classic pistachio to savory ones, like olives.

Rue Massena cuts to Rue de France, where establishments are more of bars serving cocktails. Place Massena has bars and cocktail restaurants too. Of course all of them serve al fresco, which makes these streets and plaza buzzing with life come late afternoon until evening. But if you want music along with your cocktails, you’ll have to go indoors. I caught the jazz band that plays once every two weeks at the Grand Hotel Aston’s Le Seven Blue Bar. I downed my tequila and cocktail snacks of olives and cherry tomatoes while grooving to the band’s extended and highly applauded rendition of “Autumn Leaves.” Ladies were standing up to dance, men watched them on while snapping their fingers, and the band played on at that club on top of the hotel, overlooking the brilliantly lit but never garish Nice.

Raison D’Être

I asked some locals why they live in Nice and why they think their home is sought by fellow Frenchmen from the bigger cities, by the powerful since the turn of the century, by artists and writers, by travelers all around the world. The answer is unanimous – “It’s the climate!”

To grasp that, I simply had to stand in any of Nice’s adorable streets, and from time to time, close my eyes and breathe in deeply. I was breathing in air that refreshes and nourishes. This is the air that can keep ailing artists creating, the air that raises schoolchildren to be friendly, air that makes everyone cool. Ultimately, it’s from this coolness that Nice draws its warmth, embracing those who can rust that oftentimes, the most valuable things are those unseen, like the air in Nice.

Nice and Sweet

Just in front of Port Lympia, Nice’s main harbor, and along Quai papacino (Papacino Dock), an important tourist stopover can’t be missed, the Confisserie Florian. This family enterprise which has lasted for four generations is known for making flowers into candies.

General director Sanrine Fuchs-Wyler guided us through a sampling of their amazing selection not only of the crystallized flowers but of other sweet treats as well: candied mandarins, dark chocolate bars with floral bits, chewy coffee candy sticks, jams and crystallized fruits, chocolate-soaked oranges, and nougat tablets.

Flowers have long been made into edible sweets as early as the Middle Ages. Making flowers into candies is actually quite simple, but Sandrine explains that the Confisserie Florian candy maker handles the process with their trademark care.

For their most popular violettes cristallisees (crystallized violets) a duo of candy men carries out the work. One keeps watch of the time and assists, while the other does the handling of ingredients – water, sugar and glucose. It’s a mystery how the violets figure in the mixture of those three basic ingredients, but somehow they do. The candy man keeps stirring the mixture over a flame, and once malleable, the mixture is poured on a work table. The candy man keeps kneading and folding the mixture, then cuts it into portions and runs these through a molder. The molded candies are allowed to stand and harden for a few seconds before the candy man transfers them into a sifting tray. After being dropped in the tray, the candies separate from each other a purple oval button-shaped delights.

Streets of Nice

I am not into luxury shopping, but for the benefit of readers who would like to bring home authentic French and other international brands, I dutifully strolled along Rue Paradis and Avenue de Verdun to take note. At Rue Paradis, there’s Hugo Boss, Chanel and Max Mara. At Avenue de Verdun, one can find Tiffany &Co., Escada, Hermes, Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Longchamp. The Longchamp shop offers certain items to tourists tax-free, with refunds that can be made at the airport before leaving Nice.

Better than luxury shopping or window shopping is smelling the blooms and buying some at the outdoor flower market Cours Saleya. I found out it’s best to start along the point where Rue St-Francois de Paule and Rue Louis Gasin intersect. There are orange roses, carnations, cotton flowers and tulips. There are potted olives, cactus an potted oranges. There are also flower stands selling all-natural beauty bars in packs of sevens, in variants of vanilla, olive, lavender, citron, orange, patchouli and figs. Cours Saleya turns into an antique market on Mondays.

Interestingly, the shops at Rue Massena close by around 8PM. At this time, local painters and craftsmen display and sell their work on the street, in front of the closed shops, which are even more interesting than the branded goods in the luxury shops one can also see in the metropolis. Paris’ Eiffel tower, and their very own Bay of Angels. Around this time, performance artists also come out to the street, such as acrobats wearing uniformed golden tank tops and shiny blue pants, doing cartwheels and backflips to the rhythmic clapping of the audience.

One night when I was able to separate from my travel companions and walk a few minutes on my own at Rue Gioffredo, I found one shop that’s open ’til past 9pm, the heavenly Libraire Massena. The bookshop luckily offers books in English too. With just 10 euros left, I found a perfect take-home memento, a bilingual (English and French) collection of stories by Jack Kerouac, entitled Le vagabond solitaire (The Lonesome Traveler). I took it as Nice giving me a goodnight kiss.

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