YEAR-round sun, a long seafront, an atmospheric medieval old city, the finest museums in southern France, and a cityscape bedecked in belle époque and Art Deco styles? Nice is magnificent.
It’s not cheap, however. People return with scare stories of having to take out second mortgages on their homes for a glass of wine. I decided to test out my pet theory that everywhere is affordable, with the right planning.
A city of over 340,000 souls, it’s an idiosyncratic resort in many ways.
Firstly, there’s a long beach, but no sand — the stones are about the size of your hand and extremely tricky to navigate.
Secondly, the airport, despite being the busiest outside of Paris, is slightly ramshackle and has no connection to the Cote d’Azur rail line, despite it running about 200m away.
There are no signs at the airport that the rail line even exists. Some destinations clasp you to your bosom at first sight, and Nice could learn from them (there are plans to extend a tram system to the airport by 2017).
Until then, you’ll end up paying €6 for the 98 bus into town from the airport. Later I discovered that there are buses on the coastal road, a 20-yard walk, that will convey you to the city for €1.50. It was off to an inauspicious start on the budget front.
I booked an en-suite room at the Victoria Hostel, (small but very clean and €35 per person sharing) which boasts a communal vibe and an excellent location.
I met a well-heeled young Turkish couple who had spent the previous night on a park bench in St Tropez after being unable to find a bed. Let’s just say I was glad I booked ahead.
There are three interesting parts to urban Nice — the pedestrian shopping district between the colourful Massena Square the train station; the Promenade des Anglais, built by the city’s many seasonal English residents, and the medieval city — Vieux Nice. You can have a wonderful evening getting lost in the old city’s labyrinth. Rosso Pomodora on the Cours Saleya, near the seafront, does great gourmet pizza for €13.
Lunch and breakfast, meanwhile, can be taken care of pretty reasonably. As well as boulangeries for bread, there are several cheap supermarkets: Monoprix on the Rue-Jean-Medecin, near the Basilica, and Carrefour on Rue de Lepante. Tucked under a railway bridge on the Boulevard Raimbaldi, meanwhile, lies a Lidl, albeit a Lidl desperately short of basics. Cereal, for example.
Flush with securing three days’ worth of supplies for €25, it’s time for a decent dinner under the cathedral at Plassa San Domenque.
Unfortunately, I made the fatal error there of plumping for a three-course €16 special at Le Clocher, which began with what once were mussels, and finished with an apple tart that managed to be both frozen and charred to a crisp. Much better to get one good dish than three mediocre ones.
Towering over Nice, on a rocky outcrop, is the Parc du Chateau, or Castle Hill. There is a free elevator to the top, which is a wonderful touch. It’s there that Nice was founded around 350BC by Greeks. They named the area Nikaia, apparently to commemorate a victory (‘Nike’) over the Ligurians, a Celtic people.
It was held by successive Counts of Provence and the Dukes of Savoy until, in 1706, Louis XIV had the place torn down after his troops occupied Nice in the War of the Spanish Succession. It’s a reminder that Nice only became permanently French relatively recently, in 1860.
Today, it’s more park than castle, but is impressive nonetheless, commanding views across Vieux Nice and the Promenade, and also to the elegant new port on the city’s eastern side.
Thanks to France’s first-class rail and bus network, Nice is also a superb base for exploring the rest of the Riviera. After all the tastefully laid-out urban planning of Nice, you might want to balance it out by seeing some gaudy, ostentatious consumption. Monaco and Cannes, in other words.
Never before has so much cash been hoarded to so little effect as it has in the tax haven of Monaco. It is so weighed down by money and Botox, it’s a wonder it doesn’t all slide down into the sea.
If you’re a Formula One fan, you might like to trace the route of the Grand Prix. I walked up the ‘Beau Rivage’ section to Casino Corner, and had a quick look at the familiar corner at Portiers, where Ayrton Senna crashed out in 1988.
I paid €6 to have a look around Monte Carlo Casino. Although the lobby was superbly preserved, the actual casino looks as if the Louvre has allowed Dr Quirkys open a concessionary outlet.
Imagine having rooms full of Renaissance décor and paintings, and then throwing flashing-light slot machines in the middle of it. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was certainly something classier than that.
Unless you plan on spending another €6 for a coffee, I wouldn’t linger. For €15, you can buy an all-day train ticket covering Nice, Cannes and Antibes — and it was hither I went after about 90 minutes moseying about Monaco.
For a budget traveller, Monaco is probably worth a flying visit. Cannes isn’t. There are miles of privatised beaches, and two square miles of shops flogging Hermes bags.
Antibes, however, is something quite different. The old town pales compared to Nice, but there are fine city walls and a walled harbour, both superbly maintained. Private workmen’s clubs and artists have set up shop in their arches, which lends a homely air to an otherwise fairly exclusive resort.
Walking the top of the walls, you see the broad sweep of the Cote d’Azur: the wooded Cap d’’Antibes, the sprawl of Nice, the Parc du Chateau; and the majestic Alps towering in the distance. At the end of the harbour walls, you reach Nomade, a gigantic sculpted man made of steel letters.
Antibes also has the most accessible free sandy beach on the Riviera. It’s surreal to paddle in beautifully warm water looking at the snowy Alps, and on the other that gigantic sculpture of a man clasping his knees to his chest.
Nice’s seafront lacks sand, but not swimmers or waves. I scouted a relatively sheltered cove directly beneath the castle hill, drank some tea, read my paper, and quietly marvelled at the confidence of my topless neighbour, a remarkable woman of advanced vintage.
The strand is hard to traverse, and I half-crawled, half-shuffled down to the water, which plunges in depth about two yards in. It’s generally colder water than in Antibes, but the waves made up for it.
The current is quite strong, but I got chatting to a fellow swimmer who assured me it was perfectly safe — and demonstrated the fact by setting off to the rocks at the edge of the bay. He returned, close to an hour later, and close to exhaustion. “See?” he panted. “Nothing to it.”
I congratulated him, but seriously considered fetching him an ambulance, or at least a bottle of beer.
Nice is easy to navigate by foot or tram, and has plenty of free museums and galleries. There are also cheap buses to small villages along the coast. I spent €1.40 on a bus to the Moorish hilltop village of Eze, which has hosted both Fredriech Nietszche and Walt Disney.
The views on a clear day from the Jardin Exotique are stunning, but as it was overcast, I was much more taken by the church, built 250 years ago on the site of an old temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis. Rather than taking the bus back, walk down the 45-minute ‘Chemin de Nietszche’ to Eze Sur Mer, where the philosopher completed the dangerously brilliant book Thus Spake Zarathustra.
As well as inspiring philosophers, the rocky path tends to ruin a good pair of shoes, but luckily there is a train back to Nice at the bottom. I popped back, checked out, and grabbed the 52 bus to the airport (€1.50).
You can have a reasonably priced holiday on the Riviera, if you’re careful about how you spend.