The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Sep 23, 2007

Old Spice in Old Nice

Early September finds the clan in the sunny Provençal town of Nice. Everywhere we look, we see traces of Italy. It manifests itself in the smells and colours, and the food and even in the occasional warm smile directed at the boy. There is little wonder that this, the fifth largest city in France, is so Italianate. Nizza was, in fact, an Italian possession till 1860, and Italian heroes still name the streets in this town. For most of our stay here, this knowledge and readily available Provençal pizzas and pastas are what keep the boy and the wife going, grass-eaters both.

As has become de rigueur for us on our holidays, we aim to take walking tours. If there are interesting guided walks, we might choose one or two. But with an impatient boy always ready to run off or scream if restrained, these days we prefer to grab a map and plan our perambulations ourselves.

We start our walk about Old Nice at the square named after the greatest of the Italians, Place Garibaldi. There is a lot of construction going on at the moment, so much of the charm is hidden by dirt and bulldozers. Nice is about to get a swanky new tramway system, five decades after the old routes were closed down. We catch a momentary glimpse of the statue of Garibaldi and and even briefer view of the Chapel of St. Sepulchre, all occluded by dust. The stately houses surrounding the square are in the Italian Baroque style. The architect Antoine Spinelli designed them and the Chapel in 1782. An order of lay brothers, the Blue Mendicants, known for providing succour to orphans, own the chapel. Interestingly, the choice of blue for the order, signifying devotion to the Virgin, was necessitated by the price of the colour: it was the cheapest possibility after white and black, both of which already were taken up by older mendicant orders.

Rue Catherine Ségurane followed by a quick right into Rue Sincaire brings us to the Place St. Augustin, and the Church of St. Martin and St. Augustine. Built in 1689 in the Baroque style, it has survived more or less intact over the years. It boasts an impressive chancel, whose panelling and decoration is due to the painter Brea. The complex comprises a church and a monastery, the latter converted to a military barracks after the anti-religious fervour of the French Revolution drove the brothers out of the building. The church originally had two bell-towers, one of which had to be demolished after a particularly strong earthquake in 1887 rendered it unstable.

Across the square is the Hospice of the Providence, built between 1669 and 1674. Originally a convent, it was taken over by the military in the late 18th century. In 1819, under the aegis of the canon Eugene Spitalieri de Cessole, it became a charitable institution providing board, lodging, and a solid religious foundation to abandoned girls, and teaching them various skills and trades.

We continue down Rue de la Providence and arrive at the lovely little Place de Sainte-Claire with the Convent of the Visitation. Initially, the nuns of the Order of St. Claire used to be housed here. The convent took three years to build and was completed in 1607. During the terror following the French Revolution, the Clarisses were driven out of the convent, and the order of the Visitation took it over. (This sequence of occupiers causes the present confusion of the names for the building: Chapel of St. Claire as well as the Visitation Convent.)

We see steps leading up to the old Castle of Nice here, but we do not take them. Instead, we huff and puff as we carry the boy's push-chair - the little fellow sitting regally and making appreciative noises at our effort - down Rue Ste. Claire. A look left into the pretty Rue des Serruriers (three North African children playing ball and deftly avoiding the piles of the everpresent dog-poop give us timid looks) suffices before we proceed straight and left onto Rue de la Croix, where we arrive at the Chapelle Sainte-Croix of the White Mendicants. Yet another Baroque beauty, this was established in 1767 by our man Spinelli in place of an older building that stood here since the 16th century. Its plan is very simple: three juxtaposed rectangles: for the nave, another with sides cut for the choir, and a third for the sanctuary. A rich floral decoration runs along the pilasters and the planks. The sanctuary is dominated by a decorated half-cupola with fresco. A cycle of paintings of the XVIIe century (Arrest of Jesus, Descent of the Cross, burial tomb, Invention of the Holy Cross), coming from the preceding vault, evokes episodes centered around the worship of the Cross.

A right turn onto Rue de la Loge brings us to the Palais Lascaris, a Baroque palace built for the Lascaris-Vintimille family, bigwigs since before the 13th century. These days it is a museum with an interesting collection of household items owned by the lower classes, Flemish tapestries, a trompe l'oeil depiction of the fall of Phaëthon, and not much else.

The narrow streets that radiate in all directions in this part of town are seething with locals, tourists, bric-a-brac, restaurants, galleries, shops of all description. The houses on either side seem to lean towards each other; there are clothes drying, wooden shutters banging in the wind, elderly folk looking down at the crowd from their windows. Above them are towers and steeples, some with flags atop. There is a sense of vitality and life here, and the people maintain a somewhat unhurried pace, yet confident and comfortable in their long history.

The rest of this leg of our walk takes us onto Rue de la Bougherie, leading to Rue du Marché. This is a fairly touristy part even by the standards of Nice, especially since the grand Place du Palais opens up right by the markets. Caparisoned canopies dot the square with garçons darting about and looking harried. There are fruit being sold, as well as not very good paintings by indigent (and possibly illegal) immigrants. I see Chinese and Romanians standing forlornly by their gimmicky water-colours and free sketches of the locality. A more fortunate (professional) photographer seems to do better: several Americans are buying from him.

All around us are the great palaces of Nice. Facing the Palace of Justice and turning counterclockwise, we see the Palace of the Spitalieri, the Rusca Palace, the Héraud Palace, and - behind the flower market - the Palace of the Ongran.

Who are all these people? The Spitalieri were a Piedmontese noble family who acquired the plot of land on which their palace stands in 1542. The palace was built in 1768, and later housed the French Consulate (remember, the city was Italian at the time). After the French Revolution, one of the first hotels in the city was set up here. Presciently, it was called Hotel York. It hosted, among others, Garibaldi. An elegant iron gridwork enhances the stairwells, the balconies and the carriage door of the edifice.

I have no clue who the Rusca are, but this palace - in a striking pink that makes the mouth water in anticipation of strawberry ice-cream - built in 1776, was used to shelter the Nice garrison; later it was an armoury, and later still - in 1990 - became an adjunct to the courts of justice. As for the Héraud, this palace, built in 1757 by Barthélémy Eraudo, ended up in the hands of the Lascaris-Castellar family, due to which it was confiscated during the Revolution, and sold off piecemeal to various types. All very nefarious, no doubt. The palace passed to the Malaussena, and thence by marriage to Raiberti, to whose descendants it belongs till today. The palace is worth visiting for its monumental embossed porch, the incredible virtuosity of its extraordinary voluted stairwell, and its vast interior gardens. (The photograph of the Rusca Palace is by Tony M.)

The Ongrans are even more obscure. The construction of this palace was delayed owing to some alignment issues with the adjacent Héraud mansions. The owner, Joseph-Antoine Hongran, took possession of it in 1772, but was soon imprisoned for something or the other and the building was divvied up. In 1838, the library and municipal museum were situated here; previously Napoleon was put up (as commemorated by a plaque) here. As seems to be traditional among the palaces here, the grand stairwell seems to be the main point of attraction nowadays.

Rue Gassin takes us to the flower market, and when we pass underneath the buildings to the south of it, we see the Riviera unfold before us. We are now on Quai des Etats-Unis, a promenade following the pebbly beaches of the Nice. There are lifeguards on some stretches of the (mostly) public beaches, looking nothing like the Baywatch hunks; almost every square metre is occupied by sunbathing Europeans. The older and uglier ones, wrinkled and shrivelled, are the ones more likely to take off their tops; stunned by the sight of one spectacularly ancient woman, orange skin, paunchy and white haired, with nipples near her navel, we beat a very very hasty retreat eastwards, towards the Château of Nice.

We can see people slowly ascending the hill leading up to the castle (or rather, what little remains of it), taking laborious steps up a cobbled rise. The boy, after one look at the castle (and having some time ago been allowed to run around wherever he willed), decides he would much rather play on the beach. We distract him from this intention, and he darts hither and thither, merrily yelling and pointing out dogs, buses and other kids, in a cheerful, if somewhat unintelligible stream of consciousness, uttered in what passes for English for a two-year old. It is all very delightful for us, but not so much for the rather dour dog-walkers, who wince every time he runs screaming towards one of their animals.

There's a lift taking the lazy and the handicapped up to the castle, but we don't find out about it till much later. The wife decides that we should strike for Cours Saleya, the famous strip of markets, and to do so, we cross the Quai des Etats-Unis (the traffic actually stops at the traffic light, much to our surprise), and get into the Rue des Ponchettes. There is evidence that the oldest part of the city is built around here and towards the castle, dating from ancient Greek times. The double-terrace of two-storeyed houses lining the southern boundary of the town used to be occupied by fishermen, but these days host fancy galleries and tourist shops. We ignore these, marching steadfastly towards Cours Saleya, and pass in front of the Palais Caïs de Pierlas. Matisse dwelt here from 1921 to 1938 on the third floor, from where he painted his Baie des Anges series. The building itself, painted a brilliant yellow, is not in a superb condition. It dates from 1782: take at look at it here.

The Cours Saleya market is the most famous in Nice. Famous for flowers and famous for fresh produce, and certainly famous for the pricey food served piping hot as you wait. We are sniffily informed by inveterate market goers such as this woman that 6 am is the best time to visit. We turn up just before lunch and ponder the possibility of a quick feed before we make our progress back towards Garibaldi's square. The fowl and fish put the wife off and I am much too nice to insist that - sinful carnivore that I am - I would like to partake of the local delicacies, so we nip into a nearby restaurant thinking to order some pasta. The boy is asleep in his pram, but that does not dissuade the stern waitress from informing us that the pushchair would need to be folded up. There is barely anyone inside the restaurant, but she insists that the pushchair will be in the way. So we get out, muttering curses at her obstinacy.

Did I mention the Chapel of the Misericord on the Cours Saleya? No? Well, I am not going to. If you are interested, take a look at this. The Black Penitents, to whom it belongs, as far as I am concerned are complicit in that woman's refusal to let us relax in that damned restaurant. Miffed, we continue past the completely over-the-top Opera House. This is so fruity an Italianate building that my bruised feelings are immediately restored. The wife, however, is still livid. It's all I can do to take a quick snap of it before she kicks me in the shin and urges me home.

Our walk back takes us into the heart of Old Nice again. We go up Rue Raoul Bosio, right onto Rue de la Prefecture, and left onto Rue Droite, a long narrow street that winds all the way to Place Garibaldi. I would kill for a bouillabaise now, but none of the restaurants we pass offers this delightful stew. The wife is getting hungry, and you don't really want to cross her when she is hungry, so I don't stop for any more pictures, and regretfully ignore the

Eglise Sainte Rita

Loge Communale Communal gathering places are a continual aspect of Mediterranean life, originating from the Greek agora and the Roman forum. This one, established beside the Church of St. Jacques, dates from 1574, and served as a notice-board for the municipality, various legal matters, and indeed as a dancing place for the nobility during the Carnival.

Jesuit Eglise du Jesus Okay, I lied. I did manage to take one of this Baroque beauty. The Jesuits have been the object of awe, suspicion, respect and rivalry since this militant and scientific order was established by Ignatius of Loyola in 1540. In Nice, their history parallels their fate elsewhere in Europe: initially revered and popular, their powers were steadily cut down by kings and popes, till the order was dissolved in 1773. In Nice, their presence dates from 1606, and even today, there are many houses displaying the legend IHS (Iesu Homini Salvator), their motto. The first church, a modest construction, was built in 1612. The current edifice dates from the 19th century, when the tower in the Genoese style was added, as well as embellishments to the frontage.

Palais Communal and Tour Saint-François. On the square of St Francis stands one of the last possessions of the Franciscans: the bell-tower. The Communal Palace, dating from the 16th century is now a labour exchange. On the pediments of the windows, there are images of faces, grinning on one side and grimacing on the other. Clearly, this represents the difference between good and bad governance, especially since the municipal offices used to be located here in the 18th and 19th centuries. A dolphin fountain in the midst of the square reminds one that there has historically been a fish-market here. I guess the locals didn't know that the dolphin is not a fish.

And on that note, we end the walk.

  1. Mendicant orders and their chapels in Nice.
  2. A Nice travel blog.


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