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Nice, France Today

The French Riviera's forgotten city has turned into fun-loving Nice, embracing traditions (frescoes, boardwalks), but also updating them (cool, if predatory, hotel furniture). Christopher Petkanas dives in.

By Christopher Petkanas

Not long ago, it wasn't easy being Nice. Travelers shunned it, electing not to spend their Riviera holidays in a listless community of shuffling retirees whose last wish before dying was a perfect hazelnut tan. Until recently, even the French didn't have much use for Nice. Historically, France's fifth city has been denigrated as isolated and passé not just by Paris but by its eternal regional rival, Marseilles.

Far from languishing beyond some imagined sell-by date, Nice is being reinvented by an inspired citizenry of artists, hoteliers, chefs, and designers. That's only half the story. The other half is the city's joyous, vigorous rediscovery of its past (better late than never). Together, they're making Nice the destination for restless, heat-seeking Europeans. Even Parisians have changed their song—Nice has become their favorite weekend bolt-hole. I visited for the first time 23 years ago, and I think I must have stopped counting the number of return trips when I hit 12. Tracking the city's metamorphosis has sometimes been agonizing, but more often thrilling.

Nice today has three faces: Grand, Young, and Authentic. That's how I've broken the city down, but remember, the whole point is to mix it up. Cocktails in a monument to the Belle Époque, lunch at a restaurant where live images are beamed in from the kitchen, a little retail therapy at a traditional Provençal pottery shop: it's the new way to do Nice.

GRAND NICE

For decades leading up to its relaunch last year, the Palais de la Méditerranée was the one thing that allowed every Niçois fishwife to believe the city could reclaim its grandeur. There had been many false starts. Built in 1929 as a casino and theater, and shuttered in 1978, the Art Deco landmark was at one point being developed as a hotel by a prime minister of Lebanon. One of the project's harshest critics was Jeanne Augier, the fiercely territorial proprietor of the Hôtel Negresco down the street. Madame Augier was incensed that anyone should try to steal a piece of her pie. She and other opponents cost the Palais four years.

It took $159 million and the Taittinger family to prevail, to revive the casino and create a hulking luxury hotel that sits not a little imperiously on the Promenade des Anglais. The Taittingers are best known for champagne but also happen to own Baccarat crystal and world-class hotels: the Crillon in Paris and the Martinez in Cannes. Like these, the Palais affects a brittle glamour.

As I learned looking out the window of my seafront suite at the hotel, you can't say you've been to Nice these days if you haven't walked down the boardwalk in the broiling sun and pretended not to notice the amazon women in gladiator stilettos and other boîte de nuit wear slithering out of Jaguars and into the Palais at 11 o'clock in the morning. The second part of the ritual involves lifting your head and snapping a picture of the façade, the only element that remains of the original building. Bas-reliefs depict horses rising from the ocean, their manes shaved in stylish Mohawks.

The rest of the place—all the new bits—adheres to the heartless tenets of classic Côte d'Azur apartment-block architecture. Something went wrong with the pool area and the dining terrace of Le Padouk, a bells-and-whistlesrestaurant gastronomique with serious ambitions. This extravagant alfresco zone is practically the hotel's whole reason for being and was obviously meant to have colossal views of the Mediterranean through its 31-by-17-foot windows, which were glazed in the days when Josephine Baker swanned around with her pig and are now spectacularly open to the sky. But somebody miscalculated the floor level. It's too low. From most places you can't see the water. Crazier than this screwup is the fact that, as with the piped-in birdsong in the elevators, no one seems to notice.

The Palais and the Negresco, which opened at the height of the Belle Époque, are as different as two hotels can be that use grandeur as their chief sales and marketing tool. The Negresco's ballroom-sized main public space has a glass dome made in Gustave Eiffel's workshops and a French chandelier ordered by Czar Nicholas II for the Kremlin (the revolution held up delivery, so it remained in France). The bellhops, hired for their youthful adorableness and beauty marks, wear red britches and white gloves. Jeanne Augier and her poodle lunch every day like clockwork in an alcove with Regency paneling, under a portrait of Louis XV, in the hotel's Restaurant Chantecler. The Chantecler is one of the most illustrious and closely watched tables in town, the question being, Will new chef Bruno Turbot fly or fail?

A lot of people write off the Negresco as fusty, a too authentic relic of a time they don't understand or find heavy, kitsch, and burdensome. Another group, the Wallpaper* crowd, can only relate to it ironically. Call me peevish, you can even call me a bore, but I find this insulting. The Negresco should be taken for what it is: a good, old-fashioned hotel.

Once you start thinking grandly in Nice, grandeur (which, to be honest, sometimes just means vulgar and expensive) is all you see. The Negresco hawks Niki de Saint-Phalle pool toys and molded-plastic bra tops. Harter Antiquités sells floor-to-ceiling paintings of cavaliers dressed like Puss in Boots, and bronze tripod tables with marquetry tops made from 120 swatches of marble, alabaster, and porphyry. Maison Auer is a fifth-generation sweet shop where the nougat is set out on mock-Versailles bombé chests freighted with garlands and cherubs. The specialty is fruits confits: whole figs, cherries, clementines, and plums that are blanched, then boiled in progressively longer baths of sugar syrup. One bite of a magnificently intact Cavaillon melon, the apotheosis of the confit confectioner's art, is exquisitely sweet to some, excruciatingly so to others.

La Tête au Carré ("The Square Head"), Sacha Sosno's new sculpture monumentale habitée housing the administrative headquarters of the Bibliothèque Louis Nucéra, is grand but not sweet. More than 30 years ago, the artist used the term obliteration to explain his work; he's still obliterating. La Tête au Carré is a four-story glass-and-steel box resting on, and lifted off the ground by, a three-story human bust that cuts off at the mouth. The uneasy suggestion is that the rest of the head is trapped, suffocating, inside the grid of offices.

It looks strenuous on paper, but do try the triple shot of after-dark grandeur that begins with a performance at the Opéra de Nice, followed by dinner next door at Le Grand Balcon, followed by a nightcap (and iced oysters as an early breakfast) at the Café de Turin. The 1885 opera house is adorned with frescoes of Apollo so lyrical you'll leave the theater humming them. Decorated by Jacques (Hôtel Costes) Garcia as the tufted salon of a lesser Rothschild, Le Grand Balcon has a promiscuous kitchen grinding out everything from tempura to tagines. The Café de Turin is falling apart, and the waiters aren't just gruff, they're mean, but it's still grand.

Young Nice is more purely fun-loving than Grand Nice. Certainly it's more dangerous. The only time I was attacked by hotel furniture was in Nice, at the Hi. My attacker was a table supported by the chairs pulled up to it. The chairs could be moved out to sit on, but only so far, lest the table collapse. Sadly, there was no user's manual in my room explaining this.

Do you smell Philippe Starck somewhere in this story?If so, you are warm. The Hi was designed by Matali Crasset, one of his protégées. Situated in a posh residential neighborhood just back from the water, the Hi is exactly like a Starck hotel, only more so. It is yet more toylike, has more gadgets, and its underlying philosophy is deeper. The Hi, Crasset has said, is "a place for liv-ing an experience." At $240, the cost of a double, the experience does not include porters, someone to show you to your room, or bathroom Kleenex. It does include plastic cups.

One thing I will give Crasset is her design for the Happy Bar, which was cleverly inspired by the ribbed interior of a ship hull—very tonic, very graphic. And I have to admit that I seemed to be the only one at the hotel who was not loving it. On the rooftop water bed everyone raved about the fact that Crasset had dared to place the bathtubs in the middle of the rooms. Clearly there's something wrong with me.

Steps from the daily Cours Saleya market, noted architect-designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte's remake of the Hôtel Beau Rivage is more in the Christian Liaigre mode, meaning little color and lots of abrupt angles and dark-chocolate wood. I was happier here, even though the look is a bit tough and cookie-cutter, and nearly all traces of the place Matisse knew have been brutally erased. Not that history is on the minds of the Beau Rivage's new constituency. For buff couples in Pucci crushers trailed by kids in real, not counterfeit, Burberry T-shirts, the hotel's most compelling feature is its beach club—the only one in town with an erotic whiff of St.-Tropez.

The trope at the Windsor is guest rooms conceived by artists. Except for Glen Baxter, who did a charming drawing of a cute explorer on a wall in room No. 23, I'd never heard of any of them. Often the artists' ideas are crudely executed, and sometimes they're just plain scary—no way could I spend the night with stuffed animals locked in a glass-fronted closet. Still, the Windsor has a pretty pool and walled garden, it's a five-minute walk to the beach, and the price is right. And you can always book one of the "traditional" rooms, where only a provincial decorator has intervened, if you're creeped out by imprisoned Babars.

The difference between shopping in Grand Nice and Young Nice is the difference between good and great. Grégoire Gardette will consider anything for his boutique, Voyage Intérieur, as long as it's from the Mediterranean. Bath linens from Damascus, beeswax church candles from Cyprus, and ceramics from Vallauris, down the coast, make the cut. Zita Vito is a rambling, wonderfully mysterious housewares, garden, and accessories bazaar in a covered passage between two tall buildings. Massive hammered-copper platters and clanking tribal jewelry are just the thing for sophisticated bohos who live in the West but pine for the East. The Astier de Villatte family launched one of the best (and most abused) tabletop trends of the last century: pottery that looks old, with clay peeking through the glazes, but is in fact new. Members of the clan fell out, and one of them, Jean-Baptiste, is prohibited from using the Astier de Villatte name, though he is still making elegant swan-handled tureens and amusing pitchers with protruding breasts. Galeri Démesure sells his Collection Regards alongside zinc obelisks and fantastical bee-light chandeliers with snowy branches that look like a forest after a blizzard.

There's not a Young Nice shopkeeper who hasn't been influenced by Jacqueline Morabito, the visionary decorator-designer with a namesake gallery and embroidery atelier in nearby La Colle sur Loup. Morabito made her name selling an idea of rusticity—poetic, theatrical, and somehow sincere despite its essential fauxness—to the bourgeoisie. She is also known for her devotion to white: where others see a noncolor, she sees a rainbow. Her store is filled with her signature chunky furniture, plus ceramic-pearl necklaces and wax candlesticks (for actually holding candles, not for burning). Next door, Morabito's Petite Épicerie stocks vintage tea towels, excellent olive oil, and a range of terrifyingly precise baskets. I still wonder about the consequences of using the potato basket for eggs.

Some of Young Nice's chefs are go-ing to have to try harder if they are to keep up with the merchants. From its hilltop perch outside the city, Jean-Marc Delacourt's Parcours Live Restaurant has heart-catching views of the littoral; rigidly modern furnishings; and a short selection of technically impressive if austere dishes (roasted pollack with a pellicle of chorizo). But while the idea of running a direct video feed from the kitchen to plasma screens in the dining room isn't a bad one, the images have all the charm of bank surveillance footage. Jouni, named for its 34-year-old Finnish chef, is where high rollers from La Réserve, the famously oh-la-la hotel in neighboring Beaulieu, go to shift down and eat great fish in a nostalgic bistro setting.

But the motor driving Young Nice isn't a restaurant, or a shop, or a hotel. It's a spa, Hip, which bills itself as the first holistic spa in France. I spent two hours with co-owner Annick Savin so that she could explain the concept behind Hip, but making sense of her words was like trying to capture a butterfly with a screwdriver. To me, it was just spa-talk hocus-pocus. But it doesn't matter. Hip is the most provocative-looking spa I've seen in years, with egg-shaped treatment beds upholstered in wet-look vinyl, and haircutting stations built around sculpted-cement boulders. With the Hi just a p away from Hip, confusion was inevitable. Savin worries that people calling the hotel when they want the spa may be costing her business.

"It's intolerable," she told me. "Hi cannot continue to profit from our success. It must change its name. Or else. We have Hip Feet and Hip Bleu and Le Buste Hip and Multi Hip and Hip Custom Deluxe. Hi is not Hip."

My favorite hotel in any Nice is La Pérouse, though I was less excited about it the last time I stayed there. The hotel then was triste and clunkily appointed, yet the views and location were reason enough to choose it. La Pérouse sits at that electrifying point on the corniche where the road climbs a headland and spills down into the port. Many of the guest rooms feel like eagles' nests dangling over the Baie des Anges.

Now refurbished, the hotel is no longer challenged in the visuals department. It's not the most lavish expression ofle look Provençal you've ever seen, but it is bright and pretty. Breakfast is served in the shade of box-edged lemon trees with beautifully twisted trunks. And while there are shooshier pools in Nice, La Pérouse's is the only one built against a limestone cliff bristling with vegetation.

Olive for olive, anchovy for anchovy, Authentic Nice has the city's most satisfying and memorable cooking. Think of it as a cuisine (Niçoise) within a cuisine (Provençale). There is an evolved pasta tradition, and it is all but forgotten that this is where the whole mesclun craziness got started. Specialties include estocaficada (shredded stockfish and potatoes in tomato sauce); chickpea flour transformed into socca, a giant crêpe, and panisse, a polenta-like paste that's cooled, sliced into batons, and fried; stuffed vegetables; pistou (pesto); fried zucchini flowers; pissaladière(stewed onions on a pizza crust); bagna cauda (anchovy dipping sauce); Swiss chard leaves as a filling for omelettes and a sweet tourtesalade niçoise, of course; and pan bagnat, basically the same salad on a vinaigrette-wetted roll.

In all my trips to Nice, I never found a great pan bagnat. I should have been looking in La Colle sur Loup. There, at L'Établi, a wineshop a short walk from Jacqueline Morabito's boutique (see Young Nice), the sandwiches are seasoned with fleur de sel and cost an absurd $5.

If you order stockfish at La Merenda, where the seats are stools and the tablecloths paper, the waiters give you a little saucer of it first to make sure you know what you're getting. I guess they just got tired of tourists saying, "This is too funky," and sending it back. The funkiness, which is in truth delicious, comes from making the dish the way it's supposed to be made and almost never is—with the cod's swim bladder, also dried.

The personnel are much nicer next door at Lou Pistou, a similarly modest bistro with red-and-white-checked linens, polished copper cauldrons, and a broom-closet kitchen behind a curtain of wooden beads. Visiting the restaurant six times and trying everything on the menu (except the andouillette, which they were always out of), I was able to construct the perfect Lou Pistou meal: charred red peppers in garlic and olive oil, tripes à la niçoise (in tomato-and-white-wine sauce with a suggestion of cayenne), and a luscious made-to-order lemon tart.

Catherine-Hélène Barale may be old (89) and infirm and out of commission, but she does not rule out returning to her legendary Spécialités Niçoises, a dark, yawning restaurant with thick stone walls and an extraordinary collection of rusted farm accessories, player pianos, and château-issue culinary antiques. Pilgrims come for the surprisingly un-corny folk experience (lyrics are handed out for a "Nissa La Bella" sing-along) and outrageous set menu: vin d'orange, salade niçoise, socca, daube ravioli with porcini sauce, sauté of veal, Swiss chard tourte, and a thimble ofmarc de Provence.

Planted on the rocks just a few feet from the sea, Coco Beach began as a fisherman's shack, feeding American soldiers stationed in Villefranche-sur-Mer after World War II. It's a little fancier these days, but not much, with life buoys and pulleys on the walls, and it still serves bouillabaisse the way founder Jean-Baptiste Coco decreed: without saffron (he said it masked the taste of the fish). An unscientific poll of concierges found them divided roughly down the middle about Coco Beach, with dissenters calling it "overpriced" and "overrun with cheesy French celebrities." But for grilled fish this chaste you'd have to go to Italy.

Many of Nice's most authentic restaurants are hidden among the switchbacks in the hills behind the city, where prices plunge. Chez Simon is a familial spot with an outdoor kitchen on a sprawling terrace, where one can observe tiny babies being given their first taste of Niçois pizza culture. A calf sacrificed an entire kidney—eight inches long, four wide—for my dinner here. Still enrobed in its natural snowy fat, the kidney was heavily painted with whole-grain mustard, then hung on a hook in an open rotisserie. The cook flicked a switch and the hook turned. One of the pleasures of eating in Europe is that people aren't squeamish about ordering animal parts that can't get a tan, and that look like what they are.

The shops of Authentic Nice are having a tougher time of it. When ancient coffee roasters start ceding to nasty ready-to-wear boutiques, you know it's time to worry. Holdouts include Moulin à Huile Alziari, the number-one address for olive oil since forever; Comptoir aux Épices, which sells presoaked stockfish to Nice housewives in a hurry; Terre è Provence, whose pottery is actually made in France (as opposed to Spain, as it is nearly everywhere else); and Aux Parfums de Grasse, a genteel purveyor of lavender essence and violet water. Tout pour la Cave specializes in wine-making supplies but also carries cruets, socca pans, cornichon tongs, food safes, vinegar barrels, olive-wood rolling pins, confiture basins, and an odd, free-form cork object that always baffles Americans. Nice may be the last place on the Riviera where there is still a market for regulation bouillabaisse platters.

CHRISTOPHER PETKANAS is a special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.