Nice is a veritable kaleidoscope of history, traversing scoundrels, artists, aristocrats, monarchs and martyrs. Here are a few of the highlights…
First Tourists An archaeological dig (now a museum) on the hill above the Nice Port found that Nice’s earliest tourists arrived almost 400,000 years ago, and were transient cave-dwellers that came to Nice once a year to hunt woolly mammoths!
Rock-filled Beaches Nice’s unusual beaches are naturally occurring: the smooth stones come from the mouth of the Var and Paillon rivers (which now runs under the Promenade de Paillon gardens), where the river stones have been washed down and deposited on the shores of Nice for eons.
Original Nike-Town During the Greek Empire in 500BC, the hill above the Old Town was named Nike, which is Greek for ‘victory’, making Nice the original Nike-Town. During its multi-century Italian period it was called Nizza, and since becoming French just 150 years ago, it is called Nice. The people of Nice are Niçoise, like the famous salad, and have their own dialect called Nissart.
Roman Holiday During the Roman Empire, life was centered on the hill behind Nice, in Cimiez which is now the chic residential quarter. Head up to the Jardins de Cimiez today and you’ll find the ancient Roman coliseum, which once entertained with gladiators, the ruins of an immense Roman bath complex, a 500-year-old olive grove, and a still-operating monastery.
The Bay of Angels The bay of Nice was named after a 3rd century miracle, involving a young Christian who was arrested for her faith, across the Mediterranean in Palestine. Her torturers tried their worst, but nothing could convince her to renounce her faith, and so she was finally beheaded. As was the custom after such executions, her body was put out to sea on a raft to be desecrated by sea birds. But the angels took over and guided the raft across the Mediterranean to the bay of Nice, where her body arrived pristine and untouched, and was declared a miracle. The bay is named after the angels, and the young martyr became Saint Reparate, the patron saint of the Cathedral in Old Nice.
Medieval Castle On the hill directly above the Old Town, there once was perched a massive walled fortress that protected the chateau and the hilltop village. It was the strongest fortress on the Mediterranean coast and was thought to be impenetrable. A prize to be conquered, it was attacked many times… but where it is it now? Read on a bit further…
Jewish Ghetto In the Middle Ages the hilltop village was getting too big to stay within the castle walls, and so the town decided to relocate down the hill, to where Old Nice is now. As was the practice throughout Europe at the time, the town’s Jewish community was forced by law to reside on one gated street called Street of the Jews, where they were locked in each night. The non-Jewish townspeople didn’t think much of this idea, having lived harmoniously with their Jewish neighbors up to that point, so they all worked together to tunnel a network of passageways under the buildings with secret doors back out to the village. You can still see the Street of the Jews (Carriera de la Juderia, between rue Rossetti and rue de la Loge), but it is now called rue Benoît Bunico, named after the Italian statesman who pushed through the legislation, 200 years later, giving equal rights to Jewish citizens.
Carnival The Carnival in Nice originated in the Middle Ages as a festival of church-authorized excess where the masked revelers could safely ridicule those in power, and anyone without a mask got flogged with stockings filled with flour. Nice now has a fun, big-budget Official Carnival (no mask required, but beware of the silly string), as well as various unofficial Carnaval Populaires which are no-budget free-for-alls and anyone showing up without a painted face still gets the flour treatment.
The Heroine of Nice In 1506, this town of only 3,000 inhabitants was attacked by a flotilla of 20,000 Franco-Turks. After weeks under siege the town was still hanging on, and the attackers once again tried to scale the walls. With very few soldiers left to mount a defense, a washer-woman, Catherine Segurane climbed up on the walls herself and tried to beat back the attackers with her laundry bat. Incredibly, her blow killed a warrior, whereupon she impulsively grabbed his flag, lifted her skirt, and make a gesture like she was wiping her ass with it. The attacking soldiers were humiliated; and the next day, weary and demoralized, the army gave up and Nice was saved. Catherine Segurane is considered emblematic of the Nice spirit, and there are small monuments to her throughout the old town including a cannonball from the siege suspended on the corner of rue Droit and rue de la Loge.
The Chateau’s Demise Nice lost its castle in 1706, no thanks to the flamboyant monarch Louis the XIV, who was the first to conquer the castle by a fluke of luck: a cannonball lobbed over the fortress walls flew into a tiny window and landed in the munitions storage…causing a massive explosion that blew out the side out of the stone fortress, allowing the enemies to invade. Louis the XIV wanted to insure that he would never have to reconquer it, so he ordered the legendary castle, fortress and village walls be dismantled stone by stone, many of which ended up paving the Promenade des Anglais.
Made in Italy Nice has only been part of France since 1860, when Italy reluctantly gave her up to repay France for helping defend itself from the Austrians. The Mayor’s office likes to say that ‘Nice chose France’, but the truth is that the famous ‘vote’ was rigged: there were no ‘non’ ballots printed! This mixed heritage gives Nice its fabulous melange of French and Italian, as seen in its architecture, colors, cuisine and lifestyle.
The Golden Age At the turn of the century, Nice was a winter resort for the rich, and was virtually deserted in the summer. At that time, the winter climate was so moderate that white was considered appropriate attire. Only the nouveau riche would be so crass as to vacation on the Riviera in the heat of the summer, like Nicole and Dick Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night.
The Prom The Promenade des Anglais takes its name from these uppercrust English (Anglais) tourists, who would promenade along the sea with their parasols…a strange sight to the working-class Niçoise. Among the celebrated Anglais were Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, and dancer Isadora Duncan, whose dramatic decapitation took place in front of the Hotel Negresco, when her long scarf caught in one of the wheels of her convertible.
The Promenade du Paillon Gardens The Old Town is the shape of a triangle because of the sea on one side, the Chateau hill on another, and the river Paillon on its third side, which is still there, but now running underneath the gardens. The main entrance to the walled Old Town was by bridge, whose ancient cobblestones are still visible under the glass panel at the Cathedrale tram stop.
The Noon Cannon In 1860, Sir Thomas Coventry and his easily-distracted wife were living in Nice. Having become increasing frustrated by his wife’s lack of punctuality in presenting the noonday meal, he approached the Mayor’s office to propose a daily noon cannon shot, like back in his home village in Scotland, and offered to foot the bill. Some years later, Sir Coventry returned to Scotland and took his little cannon with him, but by that time the locals were so used to their midday alarm that they petitioned the city to continue the tradition, and it continues today.
High Culture The appropriately luminous yellow building at the end of Cours Saleya’s outdoor market was once home to Henri Matisse, one of many artists attracted to this area for its unusual light. Other artists drawn to Nice include Chagall, Picasso, Renoir, Cocteau, and Modigliani. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote here in the winter, as did Somerset Maugham (who famously said, “The Riviera isn’t only a sunny place for shady people”) and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Violin virtuoso Paganini composed in Nice (and then decomposed in Nice when he died here 1840).
Pop Culture Modern celebrities include part-time resident Elton John, whose yellow hilltop villa above the Port can be seen from the top of the Chateau. Other notable Riviera Rock Stars include Tina Turner, Keith Richards and Bono… see photos of their digs here.
The Casino de la Jetée During Nice’s golden age through the 1920’s, the Riviera’s best known landmark was an opulent Belle Epoque Casino perched at the end of a long pier which seemed to float in the bay. This glittering gambling mecca was fraught with mafia and corruption, and was a major player in Nice’s vicious casino wars. It closed during WWI and met a sad end unbefitting its glory during WWII, when the Germans dismantled it for its metal which was used to barricade the beaches in case of an Allied embarquement. All that’s left to mark the spot is a small remnant of the pier.
Occupation In WWII Nice was occupied twice: first by the Italians (who were pretty easy-going) and then by the Germans (who weren’t). During the German portion more secret tunnels were dug under Old Nice and the Chateau Hill to create a mini-submarine base to store munitions, as well as to provide clandestine escape routes for the German officers.
V-E Day The Allied Forces helped liberate France from the shores of Normandy and also here in the South of France, where they came ashore between Saint Raphael and La Napoule near Cannes. In commemoration, the top portion of the Promenade des Anglais is named Le Quai des Etats-Unis, with the arched entry into the Old Town a tribute to the United States. Nice, however, liberated herself with a massive rebel uprising… click here for the story on the Liberation of Nice.
The Babazouk After the war, Nice like the rest of Europe, was in bad shape. The Old Town was so run-down and poverty stricken that it was referred to as the ‘babazouk’ or Monster’s Lair. Even in the 60’s most families in the Old Town didn’t have refrigeration and still bought ice chipped off the ice man’s cart. Laundry was still washed by hand in communal tubs and garbage was dropped from the windows into the rat-infested streets below.
Savior or Scoundrel? Nice was revitalized in the 70’s and 80’s by its visionary mayor, Jacques Medicin, …but a visionary wasn’t all he was. The product of a Riviera dynasty (his father, Jean Medicin, was the city’s beloved mayor for 40 years before him), Jacques Medicin rejuvenated the city and put Nice back on the map… but then pilfered the city’s entire treasury and absconded to Uruguay with his American wife, where he died of cancer in the late 90’s.
Today, modern-day Nice has two faces: a vibrant cosmopolitan city brimming with commerce and creativity, and the colorful Old Town with its old way of life still intact. Going between the two can be a little like a time warp, but that’s just part of the fun.
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Photo credits: Casino de la Jetée courtesy of the photo archives of Philippe Biancheri. L’Hiver a Nice poster courtesy Art.com. Photos licensed through Creative Commons: Beach Rocks by Pascua Theaus Chateau de Nice, Catherine Segurine, Rue Malonat by Patrice Semerina. Rue Benoit Bunico by Best of Nice Blog.