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Nice is the 'capital' of the French Riviera, but walk
its Old Town and you could be in Italy

Italian at Heart

June 09, 1996|COLMAN ANDREWS | Andrews is the executive editor of Saveur magazine and the author of "Flavors of the Riviera," to be published this fall by Bantam

NICE, France — With a population approaching 350,000, Nice is the fifth-largest city in France. It is also one of the liveliest, prettiest and most seductive. It nicknames itself, without false modesty, "La Bella"--The Beautiful.

But the heart of this sunny metropolis, historically, culturally, and in popular sentiment, if not exactly geographically, is the section known as Vieux Nice, or Old Nice--which looks and feels more like an Italian hill town than a neighborhood in the largest city on the Co^te d' Azur.

Seen from the air, Vieux Nice stands out from the surrounding neighborhoods, by virtue of its uniformly red-tiled roofs, in a shape suggesting a plump bird sitting upright--its feet resting on the Quai des Etats-Unis (which runs along the sea), its breast pressing lightly against an elevation called the Colline de Cha^teau, or Cha^teau Hill. On the ground, it is a warren of tiny, sometimes mysterious-seeming streets, curving almost imperceptibly beneath narrow wrought-iron balconies, open shutters, flower boxes and strings of laundry, and opening occasionally into picture-perfect little squares. The colors of the buildings are earthy, but distilled into memorable hues: a kind of dusty canary yellow, the beige of desert sand, a pink both soft and luminous, a startling saturated terra cotta called rouge sarde, Sardinian red.

There are shops everywhere, selling not just souvenirs and local crafts but also fish, meat, cheese, pasta, coffee, bread, ice cream; there are bars, cafes and scores of modest restaurants. Along the side of Vieux Nice, which opens, through occasional arched passageways, to the quay and the Mediterranean beyond, runs a long, cafe-lined pedestrian esplanade called the Cours Saleya, animated six mornings a week by one of the more vividly attractive open-air flower, fruit and vegetable markets in Europe.

The buildings of Vieux Nice are rarely more than five or six stories high, but they're densely concentrated, and the streets are narrow. The result is that the visitor feels enclosed--in a sense more comforting than claustrophobic--almost as if this were a walled city. Both the bustle of the rest of Nice and the flashy extravagance of the nearby resort towns seem far away.

Vieux Nice can itself be full of life and color, particularly on its main streets--the Rue Saint-Francois-de-Paule, the Rue de la Prefecture, the Rue Droite and the Rue Benoi^t-Bunico, among others, and certainly the Cours Saleya. Along these byways, tourists mingle with local shoppers; ne'er-do-wells linger at tiny cafe tables over pastis and Gauloises; serious-looking businessmen pause to inspect an array of terrines and savory tarts in a shop window. You might see a baker trudging past, carrying two huge sacks of flour; a painter painstakingly lacquering shutters on the door to an apartment building in another of Nice's trademark hues, a kind of bright-blue-tinged pistachio; a gaggle of children scampering up a steep alleyway on the side of the hill on their way home from school.

Both the de facto capital of the French Riviera, or Co^te d'Azur, and the official capital of the departement of the Alpes-Maritimes, Nice curves gracefully around a wide, blue Mediterranean bight called the Baie des Anges, or Bay of the Angels. There are elegant villas and impressive churches in almost every quarter of the city, and Nice is a veritable treasurehouse of art. (The elegant hilltop quarter of Cimiez alone boasts museums devoted to both Matisse and Chagall.)

Nice was born on a nearby hill, on what was to become the Cha^teau Hill. It was on that site that Phocaean Greek traders from Marseilles founded a settlement in the 4th century BC, naming it Nikaia, after the goddess of victory. A rival Roman settlement on the hill of Cimiez, a few miles inland, was far grander than Nikaia, with a temple, an extensive complex of baths, and an arena where as many as 4,000 spectators at a time could watch gladiators battle. Precisely because of its grandeur, though, the Roman colony was ravaged by barbarian invasions--and it was Nikaia that ultimately evolved into Nice. (The cha^teau for which the hill is named was destroyed in 1706; the hilltop is now a handsome park, with unparalleled views of the coast and the foothills of the Alps).

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