Nissa La Bella: Nice, the Painted City

If you were to talk about a city:

located on a bay
blessed with great natural beauty
that is a cosmopolitan mecca for tourist and immigrants
that is a cultural and educational center
with an economy based on tourism
that encourages people to enjoy themselves
that reveres St. Francis of Assisi
that has a strong Italian influence
where fishing and seafood are strong traditions
whose port harbors cruise ships and pleasure craft
that offers food from around the world
in which architecture is the city’s crowning achievement
in which the beauty and character of the old parts of the city make it a pleasure to walk around in
whose people have a sunny disposition
whose beauty and sunshine inspire a love of color
whose citizens use color with artistry and imagination
where driving and parking downtown are difficult
that has to balance progress and preservation
that gained its identity in the last century
with a six-figure population less than half of whom are natives
that increased its Asian population because of a war in Vietnam
that is one of the three largest cities on its coast
whose importance is magnified by its neighboring cities
that has a high-technology center nearby
that was once devastated by an earthquake

If you were talking about a city like that, you would be talking about … Nice!

Two Cities in One

When we first visited Nice in l977, we found it to be a beautiful seaside city that was stimulating and fun to explore. Over the years, on frequent return visits for a few weeks to up to three months at a time, we’ve gradually realized all the affinities Nice has with San Francisco. We began to understand why a San Franciscan would feel at home in Nice; why Nice is our true sister city in France.

The heart of Nice is the old town. Vieux Nice is a combination of North Beach and Greenwich Village. It’s a small triangle nestled at the bottom of a hillside between the Bay of Angels and the covered banks of the Paillon River.

The heart of Old Nice is the Course Sally, the marketplace. At one end of the Cours is the golden yellow building in which Matisse used bright colors to capture the city’s warmth and brilliance.

Six days a week, flowers are sold all day. From 7 a.m. until noon, gorgeous fruits and vegetables also fill the stalls. Ready for nine kinds of mushrooms and 24 kinds of olives?

On Monday’s the Cours hosts an enormous flea market where you can spend from $2 to $20,000 on jewelry, furniture, ceramics, art, books, and other treasures from the past. And when the market closes, the restaurants bordering the Cours fill the space with tables and chairs in time for dinner.

A slum 15 years ago, Old Nice is now the most interesting, picturesque, and enjoyable part of the city. We were lucky enough to find an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean in Vieux Nice, the perfect perch for enjoying the city.

Most of Old Nice is a zone pietonne, a pedestrian zone. But you don’t need a car. The narrow, winding streets lined with seventeenth-century Italian apartment buildings lure you into leisurely strolls. When your feet cry “enough,” you can relax at one of the many sidewalk cafes for a coffee or citron presse, a lemonade.

The old town is broken up with inviting squares that have fountains and trees. No matter where you live, the beauty of these squares, the play of light on stone and water, the vitality of the people, and the pleasure of being here will prompt you to ask yourself if you really want to go home.

Many of the simply designed buildings in Nice are painted in warm colors, some in “Garibaldi-style,” with a terra cotta red body color, yellow borders around the windows and green shutters. Remember that Nice was Italian until 1860, when it became French. Note, too, that many of the painted houses use paint, instead of plaster, to create three-dimensional-looking moldings, cornices and architectural framing.

The Matisse museum in the hills of “the New City” is an excellent example of a building using paint to create architectural flourishes. Other l9th-century houses on the hills use colorful painted murals, borders, and trompe d’oeil to bring smiles to passersby. Even baroque churches, such as the l7th century Misericordia on the Cours Saleya or the grand eighteen-century Ste. Reparate Cathedral use paint to embellish their exteriors and interiors. If you look up under the cornices to see the pigeons, and look long enough, you’ll realize that many of the pigeons are painted!

You can walk from one end of Vieux Nice to the other in fifteen minutes, but this village-within-a city is one of the biggest little towns in France. The main shopping street, which changes names four times, is full of clothing, foot shops, restaurants, and color. When the stores close for the night, they cover their storefronts with metal sliding doors–frequently painted in modern murals or flashy graffiti art.

We don’t know of anyplace else as small as Vieux Nice where you can eat African, American (Le Brooklyn!), Antilles, Brazilian, Chinese, English, French, Irish, Italian, Lebanese, Mexican, Moroccan, Russian, Thai, Tunisian, vegetarian and Vietnamese food. The Belgian bar boasts 26 kinds of beer.

Delicious local specialties include pissaladiere, a caramelized onion tart; socca, a crepe made of chickpea flour that is scraped off huge round pans; a dazzling array of shellfish served in a spectacular plateau de fruits de mer; Chateau Bellet, the wine grown in the hills of Nice; farcis nicois, stuffed vegetables; and a wide variety of pastas and pizzas.

Looking Back

Castle Hill overlooking Vieux Nice was the site of Nikaia, settled in the fourth century B.C. by Greeks from Marseilles. From the late fourteenth century on, the Comte of Nice was ruled by the Dukes of Savoie. In 1860, Victor Emmanuel II of Italy gave it to France in exchange for help in unifying Italy. The gift was ratified by an overwhelming popular vote.

“The Painted City’s” Italian heritage is reflected in the city’s food, architecture, the exuberant use of color, the character of the Nicois, and in Nissart, the local patois.

Music & Art

Rue Droite is lined with galleries in the middle of which is the palais Lascaris, an extraordinary seventeenth-century mansion. The Palais, now a free museum, isfurnished and filled with beautiful murals. Stepping into it is like taking a trip back in time.