After seeing a very good price on flights from Boston to Nice, we decided to grab tickets and get a jump on Spring in early March. I had heard good things about rentals from Nice Pebbles, and so rented the Bleu Marine apartment, located in the Old Port section of the city. We spent 11 days, exploring Nice and the Cote D’Azur. Our trip was focused on the many museums in the area, long fishy lunches, and sightseeing. I could have easily spent a further 10 days to get to everything on my list; we’re already planning on a return trip.
I can recommend Nice Pebbles and the Bleu Marina apartment. The well located apartment has a tiny balcony with a great view of the Port, comfortable furnishings, is very quiet, in an elevator building (which was broken over a weekend, but the 84 steps helped burn off lunches), and was a great value. The kitchen worked fairly well, though equipment could have been better for serious cooking. It was a five minute walk either to Plaza Garibaldi (Monoprix, tram line and buses, restaurants) or to the Old Port (bus east to Monaco; or buses across the city), restaurants and shops. About a 10 minute walk into Old Town, either from Garibaldi or along the waterfront. Nice is a comfortable city to explore and get to know, and the people we encountered pleasant.
Three resources were invaluable. One was a book called Artists and Their Museums on the Riviera, now out of print but available through Amazon 3rd party sellers. An extremely thorough book on the museums, the artists and the works found in the permanent collection as well as the chapels and smaller venues in the area. The other was the Michelin Green Guide, for the off-the-beaten-path locations and driving routes for exploration. The best Web resource I used was http://www.bestofniceblog.com/
We spent the first few days exploring Nice by foot or with the buses or tram. Public transportation in the area is excellent and inexpensive, and the local transportation authority even has an app that works well. We took a walking tour of Old Town with Tres Nice Tours. https://tresnicetours.com/ which turned into a 2.5 hour private tour as the others scheduled didn’t make it. A good overview of the history of Nice, with some welcome pointers toward good food shops, restaurants, local products.
We loved exploring the markets and buying ingredients to cook at the Cours Saleya market in Old Town, and the much larger and less touristed Liberation market on the tram line. Artichokes were in season, beautifully fresh fish abundant, and a delightful mixture of French, Italian, and Nicoise foods made eating interesting. We became devotees of Maison Barela, the fresh pasta shop in Old town with sublime tiny little ravioli. The traditional Nicoise ones were great (filled with veal and herbs), but the daily specials also delicious (lemon; olive; artichoke). Socca, the flat chickpea pancake becaue a predinner snack (and reheats beautifully in a dry frying pan!) . There are many cheese shops, and excellent butchers. We generally ate lunch out, and breakfast and dinner in the apartment. My favorite easy dinner besides the delicate ravioli was steamed artichokes with perfectly fresh crevettes, the cooked prawns sold at the fish market.
In Nice, favorite meals were at Jan, a Michelin two-star with a great fixed price lunch menu, lots of fresh flavors, spot-on cooking through multiple small courses in a friendly atmosphere. Less pricey but also excellent were Olive & Artichaut (some of the most wonderful roast chicken I’ve ever had, better than my grandmother’s); Café Lea, deceptively simple in appearance with excellent cooking; and Le Bistro du Port where we had some of the best fish ever (tuna tartare with truffles first course; sea bass roasted in salt for two)
In Nice, we loved the Chagall Museum up on Cimiez, one of my favorite museums anywhere. Don’t miss the video on Chagall, which has English on certain showings during the day. The chapter in “Artists” also gives good background. We also enjoyed the Matisse Museum higher up, next to the Archaeology Museum, ruins, and delightful park with olive grove near the old Franciscan Monastery. The 15 and 17 bus lines go up and down there frequently. Our visit to the MACAM (Modern and Contemporary Art) museum was cut short because of rooms being closed because of rain leaks, but I was happy to be able to see their Nikki de Saint Phalle collection and some interesting and challenging traveling exhibits. Musee Massina is a beautiful mansion filled with historical items and artwork. We also spent a lot of time simply strolling, along the beachfront Promenade Anglaise, through Old Town, and in the neighborhoods of elegant 19th century buildings and everyday life.
We had initially planned on renting a car for just 2-3 days and using public transportation for excursions out of town, but got a very cheap car rental rate; and a week long parking pass at the Port Lympia garage. Driving in Nice was like driving in any large city in Europe, complete with motorcycles filling up every empty space and people crossing two lanes to get to a left turn. There is also a lot of construction where the A8 meets the roads west of the city, and in a few areas where the new tram line is being completed. Our daytrips included:
Antibes, where we walked on top of the 17th century ramparts with gorgeous view of the port, coastline, and the alps off in the distance; and explored the old town, the lively newer area next to it, and the covered marketplace. Visited the Picasso Museum filled with work by him, photographs, and work by other artists. Lunch at Le Zinc, a tiny place with excellent food, especially rare tuna crusted with sesame seeds.
Driving the Grande Corniche, the road east of Nice that gives a beautiful view of the coast below. We stopped at Eze, but the town was already so crowded (and this in early March!) that we didn’t linger. Above Eze we followed a small road way uphill to an old fort (Forte de la Revere) and nature park, with an incredible view looking down on Eze and the whole coast. Great place to picnic on a warm day. On Google Maps, look for Route de la Revere. A short drive away in the hilltop town of La Tirbie is the Trophee Des Alpes, built by Emperor Augustus in 6 BC. Several other perched villages are in the area that we’d like to return to.
Menton is a large town with an attractive historic core facing the sea, with nice walking, a 19th century covered market, lots of restaurants and shops. There are two interesting museums in town focusing on Jean Cocteau, giving a good overview of the many facets of his creative life. The small Val Ramah botanical gardens are pleasant, and there is another botanical garden outside town as well. .You can also see the Marriage Hall he decorated. I suspect Menton may be a popular retirement destination, we ate a good lunch at Auberge Provencal where we were the youngest people in the room. Very good roasted fish; and an excellent beef with green peppercorn sauce.
Vence is worth your time if only for the The Chappel Des Rosaire by Matisse. So beautiful. There is a very small museum of his work on the chapel, and then you enter this lovely, glowing little space. The guard there saw my face, and whispered “I’ll leave so you can enjoy in solitude.” The town itself has an evocative old town at the top of the hill, with newer, livelier areas surrounding. There’s a central plaza with a morning market and an ongoing boules game.The tiny Cathedral has some interesting Roman fragments; and wonderfully, a Chagall mosaic of baby Moses in the river. Excellent lunch at Restaurant Cote Jardin where I had a delicious salad of shredded raw pink beets with smoked duck. In the afternoon we drove the Loup Vallet and through the Gorges, a fantastic winding drive through villages and through a steep gorge with waterfall. Highly recommended.
Foundation Maeght is another delight in the Vence area, just outside St. Paul du Vence. A large private collection of 20th century art, both inside and out in the gardens. Most of the galleries inside change regularly, so each time you come there is something new. For me, the highlight was the enormous Chagall painting, La Vie. I could have stood there for an hour, seeing new things every minute.
Villefranche sur Mer and Cap Ferrat are very easy to get to by bus or car for visiting both Villa Ephrussi and Villa Grecque Kerylos. Since we went on a rainy day in March, we decided to leave the Villa Ephrussi and its gardens for a visit at a better time of year. We enjoyed Villa Kerylos, built by a turn of the century by a lawyer-businessman who was also an amateur archaeologist. It is built in the style of a wealthy 2nd century Greek home, but with what was high tech features for the early 20th century. The audioguide is very good, and it’s a gorgeous, quirky place to visit. We walked into steep Villefranche; found Cocteau's beautifully decorated old chapel, with its lovely drawings inside blending the story of St. Peter with 20th century Villefranche. We drove around Cap Ferrat, marveling at the very exclusive homes behind tall walls. I commented that I’d be very happy living in one of the gatehouses; Larry told me we couldn’t afford the gate. Lunch at La Belle Etoile in Villefranche was well worth hunting out on a steeply staircased lane. Highlight was beet risotto with chevre.
Mougins is an atmospheric village on a hill with beautiful views to snow-covered mountains, full of art galleries, trendy shops, and restaurants. What I loved about it was the two museums we visited there. The Musee de la Photographie Andre Villers is a gem of a place, three floors in a tiny house filled with photos by Villers and others, mostly of Pucasso and other artists. There was also a wonderful temporary exhibit of works by Marc Roboud, one of my favorite photographers. The other museum is a newer one, the Musee d’Art Classique de Mougins. It has a vast collection of work from the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians; and most interestingly, has displayed and curated them with modern works to explore how they influenced later artists. Labeling in French and English, good multimedia exhibits (only one of which was broken), and a manageable size. We had such a wonderful experience eating the fixed price lunch at the Michelin starred Jan in Nice, we thought we’d try Pavlova, a two-star in Mougins. I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say it was an overpriced affair of artistically arranged foam on half the dishes, flavors subtle enough to be bland, and cringingly formal service. (seriously, white gloves and dramatically timed lifting of silver dish covers.) Should have picnicked or had a salad at one of the inviting cafes.
On a spectacularly beautiful day, we drove the Corniche de l'Esterel. We took the highway to San Raphael, and then the d559 coast road that winds its way up to Theole sure mer. A dramatic drive in the best ways, with some very pretty coves and towns to stop at along the way. We drove up the one-lane road to the Dramont observation station, leaving the car partway up when I got the jitters. Another very pretty viewpoint was further along at Ponte d’Observatoire; and also at Esquillion Point, walking up past seaside mansions. Excellent fish lunch at Les Bistro des Calinques. We stopped at Vallauris to spend some time in Picasso’s War and Peace chapel, which was so extraordinary we decided to not overburden our eyes with the rest of the museums there. Another time.
There was so much we did not get to—more time exploring neighborhoods in Nice; more museums--the Renoir Museum, several more chapels decorated by Cocteau and Tobbias, the Rosaline Chapel, the Leger Museum, Villa Ephrussi , the Picasso museum in Vallauris, Villa Sainto Sospir, the Beaux Arts in Nice, the Aquarium and Botanical Gardens in Monaco; more of the little towns in the interior north of Nice.
A first visit, and hopefully not the last.