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Nice Has a Style and Air of Romance All Its Own

May 21, 1989|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

NICE, France — During this year's bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution you'll see and hear much of Marianne, the legendary heroine who waved the tricolor as she led insurgents against the troops of Louis XVI.

But Nice has its own military heroine, Catarina Segurana, who during a 16th-Century attack by Turks mounted the town ramparts and dispatched a couple of Barbarossa's troops with her carving knife.

Catarina then spun on her heels, lifted her skirts and flashed total contempt toward the retreating infidels, a feat that caused locals to dedicate an enormous bas-relief plaque to the intrepid damsel.

Nice has always had a full measure of Catarina's verve and derring-do, and an air of romance that caused Napoleon to propose to his landlord's daughter on a visit here.

And why not? Its location on the ever-blue Baie des Anges is one of France's most spectacular settings, and the town's style can best be described as a year-round celebration, what with the renowned Nice Carnival, the Battle of Flowers, the concerts and jazz festivals and the costume parades and other hoopla that go on most of the time.

Toss in 15 art galleries, the Chagal, Matisse and a dozen other fine museums, plus a flower market in Old Town that alone is worth a visit, and you realize why Nice should be on anyone's itinerary of southern France.

Getting here: Fly Air France nonstop to Paris or UTA nonstop from San Francisco. Several American and foreign carriers also fly to Paris with changes. Air France and Air Inter will get you to Nice in about an hour.

How long/how much? Our latest visit was three days and that seemed too short. Nice is loaded with good hotels in all price categories. Also a gamut of fine restaurants, but the prices can get scary.

A few fast facts: A dollar recently bought six francs. Visit any time from February's carnival until year's end. July-August is terribly crowded, September-October lovely. Le Petit Train leaves every 20 minutes to make the rounds of important stops in town (with guide) for about $3 U.S., with on-and-off privileges all day.

Getting settled in: The Primotel Suisse (15 Quai Rauba Capeu; $43-$51 double, a suite for four at $82) has the best view in town from the east end of Baie des Anges. It's anything but a motel, being a small older hotel that was renovated this year. Bedrooms are small, but freshly decorated in light blue and white, with fine baths.

Plaisance (20 Rue de Paris; $38-$50 double, depending upon season) is in the heart of the shopping district and very popular. Again, rooms are small, but you get most of the amenities: hair dryer, TV, air conditioning and a room safe. Breakfast only. The manager is affable.

Hotel Nicea (6 Rue Miron; $41-$47 double) is in the same neighborhood as Plaisance and also serves breakfast only. Small bedrooms are very neat and fresh, but most only have showers. Take the old-fashioned cage elevator up to the sixth floor for a drink on the terrace overlooking the town.

Regional food and drink: Nice is rightfully known for its salad nicoise , a refreshing mix of cooked and raw vegetables capped with anchovies, tuna, black olives, capers and egg slices.

Pissaladiere is a pizzalike tart of fried onions, anchovies and black olives. Just as favored is pan bagnat , an enormous sandwich bun filled with most of the salad nicoise ingredients and sprinkled with oil and vinegar.

Another local specialty is socca , a pancake made of chickpea flour and either baked with bread crumbs and cheese topping or fried in olive oil. And there's a variety of fresh seafood.

Good dining: La Belle Nicoise (in the Old Town flower market) is the place to head if you want all the Nice specialties. It's built into the old city walls, with vaulted ceilings kept bright by pastel colors, green vines climbing the walls and rustic blue furniture.

The $15 menu we sampled offered fish soup or mussels, then a fillet of hake, mixed fried fish or an entrecote, followed by chevre or a dessert. Everything was prepared beautifully.

La Baieta is the place for fish and other seafood in all its forms. You'll find 20-plus varieties straight from the grill, pan or oven, plus bouillabaisse. Dine inside or outside in the evening.

The brand-new La Reale (Primotel Suisse) is built into the walls of an old castle across from the bay. Crisp white linen and fresh carnations, and the menu presents three courses of assorted classic French dishes. A fine place.

Going first-class: Hotel Beau Rivage (24 Rue St. Francois de Paule; $133 double) is a perfectly run hotel with a wonderful location, total comfort and superb dining.

Beau Rivage is a step from its own private beach, with a restaurant by the water, another in the hotel that served us one of the best meals of our trip and a cooking school run by the renowned Roger Verge, who also supervises the restaurants.

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