Secrets of the French Riviera

Discover why Nice is so nice — and uncover Jewish history in the South of France


Torn between a visit to Italy or France this summer? Why limit yourself to one when you could spend a long weekend in Nice for a taste of both. The French city — long a winter bolthole for English aristocrats and European artists — was part of the Italianate world for centuries, leaving it a charming blend of the two.

Take, for instance, the iconic local dish pissaladière. Flatbread garnished with anchovies, fried onion and small, regionally sourced olives, it’s essentially pizza with a French twist. Pick up a slice in the Old Town, before wandering over to Place Masséna and you can even find the two countries competing in architecture.

On your left, as you face the sea, you’ll see a sweep of curving Italian baroque. On your right, rectilinear streets and sharp corners ape Haussmann’s Paris. Even the name, bestowed in honour of Napoleon’s general André Masséna, reflects the area’s shifting allegiances. Born in Sardinian Nice, he fought for his Corsican emperor to capture Italy from the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburgs.

Founded by Greek settlers, Nice was ruled by the House of Savoy on and off for centuries, until local boy Giuseppe Garibaldi helped to unify the Italian states — at which point a referendum held in his own birthplace meant it ended up in the hands of the French.

And the best part is that this enticing city, which has delighted everyone from painters to tourists, is only two hours away. Staying at the Anantara Plaza hotel, the yellow Belle Epoque landmark set just off the palm-fringed seafront has had a major renovation with a swish modern interior behind its 19th century façade.

Designed by local firm Jean-Paul Gomis, alongside the London studio of David Collins (who made his name creating settings for Alexander McQueen and Marco Pierre White), the theme is low-key elegance — neutrals with a dash of blue in the 151 rooms and suites. Essential oils from nearby Grasse are on offer in the spa, and the hotel has two restaurants.

My spacious room on the fifth floor, one below its panoramic rooftop restaurant and cocktail bar, had its own panorama of the Baie des Anges from the terrace.

Lying in bed soaking up similar views, it’s easy to see why so many painters had made this city home — staring at the sea with a morning coffee somehow feels more productive when you can tell yourself Chagall and Munch once did the same.

Along with the usual luxuries of a five-star hotel, you’ll find Riviera-inspired photos and decorative touches, plus the occasional surprise. Spotting what appeared to be a curious grey stone on a table on my arrival, I gingerly touched its surface to discover it was actually a delicious invention from the hotel’s pastry chef.

A cocktail at the rooftop bar is a must, and popular with local Niçois as well; somehow insulated from the sound of the road below, the sweeping panorama of the city stretches right from the Alps to the sea.

The bar, and its accompanying restaurant, is a creation of leading Portuguese chef Olivier da Costa. A minor celebrity in his home country, the ebullient gourmand was present during my visit, darting about the room to ensure his menu — featuring sushi and ceviche tacos bursting with flavour — was appreciated.

And if the city’s glamorous neighbours Cannes and Saint-Tropez often steal the spotlight, it’s Nice that deserves your time, not least because it has some of the most interesting and least discussed Jewish history in this part of the world, along with one of the country’s biggest Jewish communities.

Wandering through the streets on a quiet Friday morning, my American-Jewish guide Robert revealed how his passion for the area’s history led him to start a tour company helping visitors discover its less well-known corners.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Nice’s Savoy rulers maintained a rare tolerance for Jews, who flocked here from across the continent. The community even developed their own language: Judéo-Nissart, a combination of the local dialect and Hebrew.

Eventually, like elsewhere in France, Nice’s Jews were forced into a ghetto, which now sits among the narrow streets of the Old Town. To this day, passageways lie underneath, through which its residents could sneak in and out, while menorahs and Stars of David carved into the walls provide a glimpse of its concealed history.

Leaving the shady alleyways behind, we climbed to a viewpoint looking down at the colourful buildings of the city curving out along the bay. Our goal was not the scene beneath but Nice’s Israelite cemetery, where the community’s graves sit alongside adjacent Protestant and Catholic cemeteries.

Walk among them and you will find philosopher Jacques Derrida, as well as marks of the community’s wealth and sophistication elsewhere, in monumental family plots featuring Victorian-style follies.

A memorial to Jews deported during the Second World War sits at the entrance, featuring the names and birthplaces of Jews from across Europe. Refugees had flocked to Italian-controlled Nice to escape deportation, and the towns listed — from Krakow to Paris — reveal just how extensive that migration was.

Nice’s uneasy sanctuary held until September 1943, when Italy left the war and the Germans moved in. Instantly, a thriving Jewish community was crushed, with some smuggled out by the resistance but others deported to Auschwitz.

Standing in reflection, trying to see if my own family’s name appeared on the monument, I was jolted from my reverie by a sudden bang. This sound — guaranteed to make the most robust tourist jump, even if locals don’t bat an eyelid — is a daily occurrence in Nice.

Its cause? A firework, placed atop the hill above the city, which is fired every day at 12.

A string of stories have grown up around it, including the popular tale of a Victorian gentleman who used a cannon to summon his wife back to lunch.

The truth? It all started with experiments to measure time and the tradition stuck, confirmed by municipal decree in 1875. It remains a useful device to this day. After a long walk in the Mediterranean heat, you’ll be grateful for the reminder that it’s time to sit down for a languid lunch in the shade.

If you’re on the go, or on a budget, this is the time to grab a slice of socca, which you’ll find on sale around almost every corner.

The origin of this savoury chickpea crepe, the legend goes, was wartime desperation; as the Turkish army advanced upon the city in the 16th century, a batter was prepared to dump upon them, until the locals discovered it was delicious.

You might need to line your stomach with more than socca if you’re planning to indulge in another local innovation called “the swimming pool”. The idea is simple: take a large wine glass and fill it with ice and enough rosé to imagine yourself diving in.

Thanks to the latter, I can’t remember the restaurant’s name where we ended the evening, though you could identify it by the picture of Robert De Niro hanging by the door.

Here again, Italian (via New York) and French meet. Indulging with plate after plate of food, and soaking up the South of France’s sun, I could see why the city has been fought over for so long.

Getting There

Flights to Nice cost from around £50 return from London and Manchester, with airlines including Wizz Air, Ryanair, easyJet and BA.

Double rooms at the Anantara Plaza Hotel Nice cost from £310 per night in low season.

A three-hour walking tour of Jewish Nice costs around £450 with Via Nissa. A two-hour walking tour costs £29 with Nice Fun Tours.

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