Nice, France: a cultural city guide

imagePaul Wade offers an essential cultural guide to Nice, a magical city on the French Riviera whose appeal lies in its reality.
When it comes to culture in France, only Paris boasts more museums and galleries; and, in Nice, all but one of the 20 are free. Topping the bill is the Musée Matisse. Rather than a collection of greatest hits, this follows the artist’s development, from his first dull oil of 1890 to the dramatic sketches for a chapel some 60 years later.

To see the finished product, the Chapelle du Rosaire, I head for the nearby hill village of Vence. Here, in a convent, the bold yellow, green and blue stained glass, let alone the stark depiction of the Stations of the Cross, are well worth the one-hour bus ride (No 400, €1/90p). Just down the hill, I bypass Saint-Paul de Vence, a temple to tourism, and visit the Maeght Foundation, where sculptures by Giacometti, Braque and Miró lurk among the umbrella pines in the estate’s peaceful Mediterranean gardens.

Back in Nice, the Marc Chagall Museum follows a Biblical theme. In the plain white rooms, the brightly coloured canvases and stained-glass windows portray stories from the Old Testament.

Chagall aimed to give visitors “a feeling of peace, of religion, of life” – and he succeeds. By contrast, the displays at MAMAC are unsettling. In the biggest museum in town, works by Sixties rebels such as Yves Klein, Niki de Saint Phalle, Warhol and Lichtenstein deliberately challenge our perceptions of art.

Nice’s other museums range from fine arts and photography to naive art and Asian treasures. But not all the art is indoors. Impossible to miss is the installation by Jaume Plensa on the revamped Place Masséna, the main square. After dark, the seven mysterious android figures, each perched on a steel pole, slowly change colour.

Nice has three faces: the stretch along the Prom; Old Nice, with its medieval lanes and alleys; and, some three blocks inland, the Nice where locals live, work and play. Downtown Nice is undergoing a facelift. Most of it is successful, though the port feels sanitised, with the quayside cut off from the surrounding restaurants and shops.

By contrast, Old Nice is as higgledy-piggledy as ever. Although tourists jostle to buy scented soaps and T-shirts, locals still queue at their favourite butcher and baker. Dufy may have given me a romantic image of Nice, but it’s the city’s reality that appeals today.

My first impression of Nice came from a painting by Raoul Dufy: the unbelievably blue water of the Baie des Anges, the tall palm trees and the sweep of the Promenade des Anglais. Dufy set up his easel at the Hôtel La Pérouse and, 80 years later, its terrace view of the capital of the Côte d’Azur is still magical. Unlike other resorts along the Riviera, Nice is a working city. So, I mix with commuters on the modern tram, buy pain au chocolat at the bakery and practise my French in wine bars.


In 1887, the French author Stéphen Liégeard published a book called La Côte d’Azur and the name stuck

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