NiceWords Andy Harris
Photography David Loftus
Do you want to get to know Nice really well? Then try a food tour with local Marion Pansiot, who will guide you around the back streets to meet the hard-working chefs and authentic food artisans of this idiosyncratic city. “I like to show people the up-and-coming area between Place Garibaldi and the port area first, as it’s got more of a modern Boho vibe and is filled with adorable little bistros and cafés,” she explains. “One place everyone knows is Chez Pipo.Since 1923 it’s been serving amazing socca (chickpea pancake) cooked in the wood-fired oven with hetre (beech wood). I love Steeve Bernardo, who gave up a job in marketing to buy the place from the old owners when they retired. Once they’ve tried this quintessential Niçois dish, I take [the tour group] back to the more familiar Vieille Ville (‘Old Town’) to taste some classic Provençal breads, goat’s cheese and olive oils, then usually end up in the restaurant Chat Noir Chat Blanc, run by the really cool Giorgio Grilenzoni and Nico Sikic. Often it’s so hot in the tiny kitchen that they strip down to their tattooed torsos as they cook!”
As capital of the Cote D’Azur, the legendary playground of the rich and famous, whose sumptuous villas and Gothic follies perch along the cliffs of the Grande Corniche road, snaking around the coast to Menton and Monaco, Nice’s unique mix of Gallic and Italian influences (testimony to the fact that it was only ceded to France in 1860) is all around. And it’s best tasted in its charismatic cuisine in cramped bistros, seen in the Old Town’s crowded piazzas and streets, where colourful Genovese-style buildings are festooned with washing hanging out of the windows or heard in
the distinctive local Niçard dialect used by the chatty stallholders of its open-air markets.
Although many people today just jet into Nice airport on their way to their summer homes in the Provence hinterland, to Cannes for its film festival and jewel heists or to St Tropez to stare at the gin palaces and designer boutiques, it’s worth a weekend away here if only to sample the brilliant snack ‘pan bagnat’ (a crusty roll filled with tuna, eggs, lettuce, onion, tomato and radish) or a slice of pissaladiére (onion, anchovy and olive tart) – best with a glass of chilled CÔtes de Provence rosé.
Of course, there’s more than just simple Mediterranean food and drink to try. An energetic walk or a lazy lift up to the Colline du Chateau, the hill that dominates the Vieille Ville and the site of the ancient Greek Nikaia Acropolis and old 10th-century settlement of the town, reveals a majestic sea of red tiled rooftops below with the domes of the Russian Orthodox cathedral, built for all the White Russian emigrés who made the city their home, in the distance. There’s also a cooling waterfall hidden amongst the undergrowth, and the shocking daily blast of a cannon at noon – a tradition begun in 1861 by Sir Thomas Coventry-More, who wanted to remind his wayward wife that it was time for lunch. Queen Victoria even settled in Cimiez not far from where the artist Matisse lived and painted in the now upmarket hilly suburb overlooking the city.Then there’s that famous sweep of beach known as the Baie des Anges (‘Angel’s Bay’). It may be pebbly but you can see why the English flocked here from the 18th century to enjoy the mild winter climate. Writer Tobias Smollett spent a year here in 1863 capturing his experience in his book Travels Through France and Italy and there was even a casino to fleece all the Brits doing their Grand Tours. By 1830, they had built the seafront promenade still known today as the Promenade des Anglais.
Nice today is a far cry from the discreet charms of the Edwardian bourgeoisie with their parasols and striped bathing suits, and more a place where you can see all types strutting their stuff – roller-blading bikini girls, some shocking face lifts, odd couples walking dogs and the inevitable hapless tourist. Like Rio’s Copacabana Beach, it has an energy that captivates with its addictive pageantry of life. With Marion Pansiot (or one of her other guides if she’s not available), you start in the Old Town and end up at the inspiring Marche aux Liberation. At the top of the new tram
line that goes along Avenue Jean Medecin, the main drag up from the beach, is where the locals like to shop every day except Mondays. Around the impressive façade of the old Gare du Sud railway station, stalls set up early with just-picked courgette flowers for deep-frying, dewy aubergines, tomatoes and peppers for stuffing with bread and herb mixes and a pristine selection of rockfish for soups and grand aioli. There’s the brilliant Kiosque Tintin, which serves a memorable sweet and savoury tourte aux blettes (swiss chard pie) dusted with icing sugar, which you can eat at sidewalk tables before a final visit to the art nouveau church, Eglise Sainte Jeanne d’Arc, known locally as ‘la Meringue’ because of its curvaceous white shape.The famously dictatorial
mayor and accomplished cook Jacques Medecin wrote a classic paean to his city, Cuisine Niçoise in the 1970s. He fled to Uruguay in 1990 when it was discovered that he’d been siphoning money for the Nice Opera into his bank account. Hiding out in Punta del Este for eight years until his death, he must have missed his beloved city and its cuisine that he wrote so eloquently about: “Because I love Nice, its surrounding countryside, its pretty girls and their strapping young escorts, its arts, its flowers, fruit and vegetables, and, of course, its cooking; because genuine Niçois food simply cannot be found except in Niçois homes and a handful of restaurants in Nice.”