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PLACE IN THE SUN : Nice, Sensual Capital of the French Riviera, Always Seems Warmer and Brighter Than Wherever You've Just Come From

March 06, 1994|Colman Andrews | Andrews, editor of Traveling in Style, is working on a book about the cooking of the French and Italian Rivieras.

THE AIR FRANCE AIRBUS FROM gray, icy Paris changes key, eases down through the clouds and banks out over the Mediterranean. Suddenly, below us, Nice shines. Red tile roofs burn dimly in the late winter sun; white apartment blocks glow against brown and green hills. The Baie des Anges, or Bay of the Angels, around which Nice curves gently, is a patchwork of muted turquoise (the shade of the veined ceramic balusters on villa terraces all over this stretch of coastline), deep marine blue (a blue that seems to have no bottom), pale sky blue, murky blue with notes of purple, avocado green, sea green, seaweed brown and more. We swoop down close to the water and land at its very edge, on a runway built out into the bay at the Aeroport de Nice--Cote d'Azur.

This is a typical arrival in Nice. One always seems to be approaching it from some place colder and less bright. And whether glimpsed first from the air or from the autoroute , it always looks warm, handsomely illuminated, welcoming. Its sunny, intensely colored, mild-tempered atmosphere is so immediately, sensually engaging that the visitor's first reaction, upon stepping onto local soil, is likely to be a smile, fueled by a suffusion of well-being.

Nice is the capital of the Cote d'Azur or Azur Coast--the French Riviera, the glamorous maritime extension of Provence. Bordered in the west by the Var River and in the east by a string of little mountains--Mont Boron, Mont Alban, Mont Vinaigrier and Mont Gros--running inland from the sea, Nice is the fifth-largest city in France, with a population approaching 400,000. It is a city composed of vastly different quartiers , or neighborhoods, from sterile condominium communities to North African slums, from blocks of boring petit bourgeois apartment blocks to clusters of elegant mansions hidden behind high walls and bougainvillea, from workaday shopping streets to grand boulevards and squares.

It is a city full of art, with museums devoted to Matisse and Chagall, to naive and contemporary painting and sculpture, to local artists and the local past. It boasts a flashy casino and several major agglomerations of convention facilities. Its Promenade des Anglais, which curves right along with the coastline from the edge of the airport to the Jardin Albert 1er, is one of the most famous and graceful seafront esplanades in the world. (The promenade was named in honor of the local English colony, which constructed it in 1820.)

The historic and sentimental heart of Nice, though, and the portion of the city likely to appeal most urgently to the senses, is a large, irregular wedge of real estate in its southeastern precincts. The blunt end of this wedge is the far bank of the Vieux Port, or Old Port; it tapers off in the gardens just past the Place Massena. Within this area are not only that port and that square, but also the hilltop park known as Le Chateau (though there hasn't actually been a chateau on the site since 1706), the hilly pedestrian quarter of Vieux Nice (probably the closest thing to an Italian hill town that exists on French soil), the famous flower and produce market on the Cours Saleya--and a stylish continuation of the Promenade des Anglais called the Quai des Etats-Unis, or Quay of the United States. Within this wedge, as far as I'm concerned, is the real Nice.

The Old Port is sort of a deckle-cut rectangular basin, long and narrow. Its innermost portion, the Bassin Lympia, is crowded with modest pleasure craft and a ragtag fleet of dinghies and outboards. A bit farther out, in the Bassin des Amiraux, six or eight small commercial fishing boats still dock with their just-caught seafood--turbot, red mullet, monkfish, squid, octopus, occasional spiny lobsters and the like.

On the quay behind the fishing boats is the Marche aux Puces de Nice, or Nice Flea Market, a little clapboard village of 33 stands, at which everything from crystal and lace to military badges and antique dolls can be found. A far better flea market, though, arrays itself every Monday to the west of the port, around the Quai Rauba-Capeu (the "Hat Thief Quay," so named for its capricious breezes), on the Cours Saleya. This is an astonishing bazaar--100 or more stands and tables stretch down the length of this beautiful passage. Buildings in shades of ocher, terra cotta, white, off-white and pink frame the tile-paved Cours. Through the center of it runs a line of yellow canopies. Beneath these and on every side, out in the all-but-inevitable sun, a veritable panoply of goods is offered--rusty old locks and keys, exquisite Lalique vases, antique cameras, miniature perfume bottles, lots of silverware and linen and glasses, books, old postcards, LPs (remember LPs?), lacy baby clothes, paintings, jewelry real and otherwise--even albums full of clothing labels (a 1950s Lacoste polo shirt label, for instance--for about $30!).

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