Top tourist question: Why is there no chateau on the Nice Chateau? Why is there no castle on Castle Hill? There is a lot more to this historic hill than meets the eye…
The Greeks were the first to colonize the hill above what is now the Old Town, during the Greek Empire in 500BC. The hill had two amazing attributes, first, there was a natural fresh water spring bringing drinkable water to the top of the rock, which could sustain a village. The second was its formidably strategic location, jutting out into the sea for maximum visibility of invaders, and thus, the Greeks named it ‘victory’ or Nike, (later Nizza, and now Nice.)
By the 11th century, the hill sported a Medieval Chateau, a grand Cathedral, and a bustling hilltop village, all encircled by a massive walled fortress. It was the most formidable fortress on the Mediterranean Coast and was thought to be impenetrable. As it was a prize to be conquered, it was attacked many times… but where it is it now? Read on a bit further…
The Birth of Vieux Nice
In the Middle Ages the hilltop village was getting too crowded to stay within the castle walls, and so the town decided to relocate down the hill, to where Old Nice is now. The Chateau became strictly military, protecting the triangle-shaped village below, with the sea on one side, a large river on the other, and thick double walls punctuated with tall lookout towers surrounding the village.
During this time, as always, Nice was constantly under attack by barbarians. In one particularly arduous assault in 1506, the town’s 3,000 inhabitants held off 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 of 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: during a attack, that was otherwise doomed to fail, a cannonball lobbed over the fortress walls flew through a tiny window and landed in the munitions storage…causing a massive explosion that killed hundreds and blew out the side out of the stone fortress, allowing the enemies to invade.
After Nizza was conquered, Louis the XIV wanted to insure that he would never have to reconquer it, so he ordered the legendary castle, fortress and village walls to be dismantled stone by stone, many of which ended up paving the Promenade des Anglais.
Here is a really trippy computer created image imagining what modern Nice would have looked like if the castle and fortress were not torn down and were still standing…
Flash forward 900 years to WWII. Remember that fresh water spring that so attracted the Greeks in the very beginning? The occupying Germans took advantage of the existing vertical ‘piping’ from the ancient spring, and enlarged it to make a crude munitions elevator to carry cannons and armaments to the top of the rock, where they could rain bullets down on the hapless inhabitants of Vieux Nice and the Port.
After tunneling through the base of the (now chateau-less) Chateau for the munitions elevator, they got the idea for a mini secret submarine base that could also function as an clandestine escape route for the German officers. The secret sub base was never finished, but the extensive tunneling remains.
After the war, in 1951, the supply lift was turned into a proper modern elevator with access through the main German tunnel.
The elevator is free and open to the public. While you’re waiting for your ride to the top, check out the wall behind the bench next to the elevator: you’re looking at the secret access to the WWII tunnel network.
The Nice Chateau/Castle Hill Today
The Nice Chateau is now a wonderfully peaceful forested oasis peppered with ancient ruins and stunning views from all sides. Walk around the site and you will discover a massive waterfall, a play and picnic areas, ruins of the original Cathedral, stone mosaics paying homage to the Chateau’s Greek beginnings, and around the back, 2 stunningly beautiful cemeteries. And it’s from the Chateau that the daily noon-time cannon is shot off.
To get up to the Chateau, you can walk up from Old Nice or Place Garibaldi, or just take the free elevator up, which can be found just across from the seaside; look for the neon ‘Ascenseur de la Chateau’ sign next to the Hotel Suisse.
The Chateau closes at nightfall, but there is one weekend a year when you can go up to the majestic Chateau at night. The Fete de la Chateau is a free two-night party on the last Saturday and Sunday in June; it has a kind of a hippy vibe, and is a bit of a musical hodgepodge, but it’s worth it alone for the extraordinary moonlit views over Nice.
See Related Page: 21 Fascinating Facts About Nice or more on the history and mysteries of Nice
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Photo Credits: Chateau de Nice, Catherine Segurine, by Patrice Semerina. Nice Chateau from Ministre de la Culture et Communications, all licensed through Creative Commons. 3D projection of the Chateau by Florent Pey/Akg-images published in Sites et Monuments reconstitues en 100 Images de synthese, de l’Antiquite au XX siecle en France.