How gipsies put the ‘grand’ in the Grande Epoque

The British weakness for good works, as others sometimes see it, gave the world’s most famous sea front its name, the Promenade des Anglais at Nice, jewel of the French Riviera. 

Although a raised promenade had been started beneath the demolished citadel in 1750, until the 19th century it consisted of a rough track interspersed with trees, an ideal hiding place for thieves and beggars. An Anglican clergyman, Lewis Way, persuaded the local British community that they could eliminate this nuisance in a most Christian fashion. Many of the poorer families in Nice had been made penniless by the failure of the local orange harvest, so they were put to work on enlarging and paving the path, until it stretched over ten kilometres and became known, because of its benefactors, as the Promenade des Anglais. Sitting in one of the little blue chairs, or walking up and down between vast palm trees on one side and the shimmering Mediterranean on the other is a delightful experience, marred only by the hazard of reaching the safety of the promenade in the first place. Cross other than at the traffic lights at your peril, as the adjoining dual carriageway is a racetrack for errant motorists, with no chequered flag.

The beaches are pebble, so far as it is possible to see. Most are completely covered with walkways, parasols and loungers, decorated in the colours of the hotels across the road, which own this valuable real estate. The prices in the beach bars and restaurants are accordingly not for the faint-hearted, although the staff come from the hotels themselves and provide superb service and cuisine. Few of their patrons, who are there to see and be seen, make any discernible effort to enter the water, despite its agreeable temperature.

It is hard to believe that until 1900 or thereabouts, there was no demand on the Riviera for sea-front hotels, which provided an opportunity for two young entrepreneurs from Nice, Henri Ruhl and Henri Negresco. They were an unlikely pair because Ruhl’s family was rich and Negresco, a Rumanian, had begun his working life as a gipsy violinist playing in restaurants for a few francs.  However, Ruhl had his own travellers’ connection: he fell in love with a half-gipsy, local actress and courtesan Caroline Otero.  She refused to leave Nice when Ruhl bought a seaside plot at Cannes and began building the Carlton Hotel, so he preserved rather more than her memory by constructing twin cupolas on the roof with nippled spikes, to represent her breasts.

Negresco had far more trouble raising the money for Nice’s most famous hotel, which bears his name. In 1912 he hired the architect of the Moulin Rouge in Paris, Edouard Niemans, to design the hotel with Gustave Eiffel, reportedly commissioned to construct its now famous pink dome. Niemans also devised the great chandelier in the royal salon and decorated each bedroom suite to reflect a different period, such as Napoleon III, Empire and Louis XV. The page boys, with their red breeches and dazzling white gloves, were Negresco’s idea. After several periods of uncertainty, exacerbated by its reluctance to question the ability of its regular guests to pay their bills, the Negresco has flourished; Henri Negresco, sadly, went bankrupt and died penniless in Paris in 1920.

Away from the sea, brick-red buildings border the Place Masséna, with shady gardens and pedestrian precincts, full of shoppers by day optimistically seeking bargains in smart stores, and patrons of open-air cafés at night. 

But the true heart of Nice lies in the old town, a reminder that this was once Nizza, part of the Italian state of Savoy. Place Rossetti is the spiritual home of ice-cream, with Glacier Fenocchio the pride of the parlours, offering a myriad of flavours, including chewing gum, fig and rose. Around Cours Saleya a vegetable and flower market, with many wonderful blooms from Italy, operates every day from eight until noon; the flea market and the arts and crafts market are also regularly held here. To the north the grid of streets disintegrates into a random maze of alleyways and steps, a paradise for pasta lovers, as almost every known variety is on offer. We could be in the back streets of Genoa or Naples, so authentic seems the Italian atmosphere. The bistros and bars are full of artists, forever putting off the moment when they have to start work.

In the busy port, little fishing boats painted in vivid colours lie stem to stern with millionaires’ yachts and battered ferries, the casual mix heightening its authenticity. The quayside restaurants are packed with locals, some clutching treasures found in the antique shops of Rue Ségurane. Residents of Nice aspire to a house or apartment on Cimiez hill near the Roman amphitheatre and Roman baths, remarkably well preserved. Further out, but equally fashionable, is Mont-Boron with its delightful houses built in the Belle Epoque and a superb view over the city. The scenery however is even better, if money is no object, from the summit of neighbouring Mont-Alban, where the vast yellow villa at the very top belongs to Elton John.


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Bay of Nice
© OTCN J. Kelagopian
Negresco hotel
© OTCN Franck Follet
© OTCN Franck Follet
Daily market
© OTCN Hugues Lagarde


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