In 2021, Nice was proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO as “Nice, Winter Resort Town of the Riviera”.
It started in the first half of the 1700s when the city became a favoured destination for wealthy Parisians and northerners from as far away as Russia. Ironically, they built up on the hills, well back from the dazzling blue seaside strip for which the city is now renowned. They came for the warm climate not the beach. Not so, modern visitors, who don’t mind the pebbly shore.
Half a century later, the British started coming. They rather enjoyed bathing and strolling by the sea, sparking a building boom of hotels along the waterfront.
In 1820, a particularly harsh winter in the north brought an influx of beggars to the city. Anxious to help them, the Brits decided they could be put to work building a promenade. The resulting Promenade des Anglais runs for seven kilometres and strolling along it has been the quintessential Nice experience ever since.
Now a recognised ‘symbol of the city’, Hotel Negresco was built on Promenade des Anglais in 1913 and quickly became the favoured haunt of European royalty. It is claimed that the shape of its dome was inspired by the architect’s mistress’ bosom.
The hotel fell on hard times and was converted into a hospital between the world wars but was restored to its stunning best in the 1950s. Since then its guest list has included Salvador Dali, Princess Grace, the Sultan of Brunei and The Beatles, and it featured in the video clip for Elton John’s hit I’m Still Standing.
Flamboyant hotelier Jeanne Augier ran the hotel for more than 60 years until her death in 2019 at the age of 95. She claimed she once told Bill Gates he wasn’t rich enough to buy it.
There’s some art installations scattered along the promenade including this clever piece. Looks like a beach chair, right?
So, what’s so clever? On closer inspection, it’s two dimensional. A visual trick.
Around town there are several pieces by neo-pop artist Richard Orlinski, including this one on the promenade which is typical of his work. He claims to be France’s biggest selling contemporary artist and all of his creations are prominently branded. Regardless of what you think of his work, he’s certainly an expert self-promoter.
Back from the promenade, Vieux Nice (Old Nice) is a tangle of winding lines, the layout of which has barely changed since the 1700s. Baroque churches dominate the tiny plazas.
And while there’s still a certain shabbiness to the buildings, the whole area has become a buzzy enclave of shops and restaurants.
There’s been some tricky restoration work on some of the public buildings. If you look carefully at this next one you will see that the facade is not what it seems. The windows and shutters are real, but the balconies and the decoration above the shutters – everything white – is trompe l’oeil. Compare the plain facade on the short side of the building.
The best view over Old Nice is from Colline du Chateau, the site of a long-destroyed military citadel built in the 11th century on a rocky promontory above town.
There are steps zigzagging up, or you can take the ancient lift.
On the other side of the promontory is Port Lympia, Nice’s original Venetian port, a picture perfect spot for a lunch away from the crowds in Old Nice.
This sculpture celebrates a day at the beach.
Behind the Colline is Nice’s historic cemetery. Founded in 1783, it doesn’t have lots of famous residents like some of the cemeteries in Paris, but it’s got some of the most interesting headstones we’ve ever seen and is just a fascinating place overall.
There is one name most would recognise. Emil Jellinek-Mercedes commissioned the first modern automobile, the Mercedes 35hp. He created the Mercedes trademark, naming it after his daughter Mercedes Jellinek.
We’d both prefer to be cremated, but if burial is all that’s on offer, Julie wants this one – an angel hovers with her hand cupped to her ear, listening as a corpse stirs…
From Nice we caught a bus further along the coast to Saint Jean Cap Ferrat. Originally a small fishing community, it became a party destination for the mega-wealthy at the turn of the 20th century. King Leopold II of Belgium started the trend, building an estate, houses and an artificial lake where he and his entourage would spend the winter months.
It’s still a playground for the rich. It has recently been named as the second most expensive residential locale in the world, second only to Monaco. A walking path runs all the way around the peninsula. You can catch a glimpse of some of the Italianate and Belle Epoque mansions, but most are secreted behind high fences and tight security.
One mansion that can be visited is Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. In 1905, Beatrice de Rothschild, heir to a banking fortune, was looking for real estate. She’d shed her husband, Russian banker Maurice Ephrussi after a 21 year marriage blighted by his infidelity which resulted in him passing on to her a sexually transmitted disease which rendered her unable to have children, and his avidity for gambling which threatened to bankrupt them. Her father died shortly after her divorce and she inherited his title and his wealth. Now a Baroness with virtually unlimited resources, she commissioned a palazzo fit for a princess.
She was certainly an eccentric lady. It was reported in the press of the day that she held a full blown wedding for her dog, a poodle of course. The ‘bride’ wore a white satin dress, full veil and white kid shoes. The ‘groom’, also a poodle, wore a swallow tail coat, vest, trousers, patent leather shoes and white gloves. Both the guests (other dogs) and their accompanying humans were required to attend in full evening dress.
Whether or not the story is true, it started a fad among the wealthy as far afield as the USA to hold weddings for their dogs. And at the Villa, Beatrice made up for the miserable years of her marriage. She amassed an incredible collection of art, sculpture, porcelain, rare and historic carpets, frescoes and wall panels. She became renowned for throwing lavish parties, hosting the elite of French society, playing roulette at the high end casinos in Monte Carlo, and engaging in the frivolous entertainments typical of the excesses of the Belle Epoque.
Her taste in design were elegant and ornate.
She had two monkeys as pets and decorated an entire room with monkeys motifs, including hand painted wallpaper and rare porcelain figurines.
Themed gardens covering seven hectares surrounded the villa, including French, Spanish, Florentine, Japanese and Rose Gardens. She imagined the estate as a ship and had 30 gardeners who were required to dress as sailors wearing berets with red pom poms.
Upon her death, she bequeathed the estate to the Academie des Beaux Arts division of the Institut de France. The house is impeccably maintained and even the gardens are kept as near as possible to the way they were originally conceived. A gorgeous property and an interesting back story.