It’s 4 pm. You find yourself in a street. It’s only about seven-feet wide, with six-story buildings painted red, orange, yellow rising along it, creating a pastel cavern. Washing hangs to dry from balconies overhead and beyond that there is a ribbon of bright blue sky. Three small metal tables practically fill the street, at one of them sits an old man looking at nothing. Another old man comes out of a doorway, kisses him on both cheeks and says, “I just had a nice siesta.”
Welcome to Nice.
Nice (pronounced “Neece”) is at France’s Southeastern extremity. It is the heart of what is known to non-French as the “Riviera”, and during the summer it’s stuffed full of people from colder climes. The city means something different to just about every French person, from “stuffy, old retirement home” to “exciting, chic place to be.” Kind of like Miami, except without the gunfire.
Unlike Miami, though, Nice is older than the hills (not that there are any hills near Miami anyway). I may be wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the second oldest city in France (after its bigger, stronger, nastier brother, Marseille). As such, and thanks to its sitting very near the border with Italy, Nice has a subculture that’s remarkably distinct. If you speak French, you’ll immediately think of that wonderful niçois accent; that lilting, lyrical way the inhabitants have of singing at you, even if they’re angry. It’s not far from an Italian accent, but it’s something very different as well.
That pretty much describes Nice—not far from Italian, but something very different. It applies to the food, to the architecture, to the way of life. In fact, the city was passed back and forth between France and Italy over the centuries, the last switch coming as recently as the 1940’s (Nice was the bone Hitler threw to Mussolini in return for the Italian declaration of War).
The uniqueness of Nice doesn’t come only from the extraordinary warren of narrow cobblestoned caverns that typify the old city, but also from a certain way of doing things. For instance, there’s the Cour Saleyas, a wonderful street that provides a certain balance to the maze of the old town, since it’s both wide and low; the buildings on either side being no more than three stories high, though just as colorful as the other buildings in the old city. The Cour Saleyas is lined with restaurants, all of which feature outdoor seating filling the entire street with tables, except on Mondays, during which the center of the street is taken up by that wonderful French tradition of a brocante. A brocante is like a neighborhood yard sale, where people come and sell whatever they don’t want anymore. The brocante on the Cour Saleyas is primarily staffed by professional (although I use the term loosely) antique dealers, who apparently go around and buy up what everyone else doesn’t want any more. There are some genuinely valuable things, no doubt, but for the most part it looks as if the house of every great-aunt on the planet exploded into the middle of the street, depositing old 78s, 19th-century candlesticks made of tarnish and wax, costume jewelry from a less tasteful age, unidentifiable pieces of metal, broken dolls, trowels, beads and pots and just about anything you ever threw away.
It’s paradise for a cultural voyeur (i.e. an anthropologist)—you can peek into the lives of an entire generation or two. Why wait until all this rubbish gets buried under a couple of centuries of dirt before analyzing modern culture? Take a gander right now!
While, of course, eating some food at one of the restaurants that line the street. The food in Nice is distinct and, of course, not quite Italian. If you’ve ever seen something on a menu listed as provençal, it really means that it was inspired by something they do in Nice (something that probably uses tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and perhaps peppers). Nice is perhaps best known for salade niçoise, which unfortunately involves anchovies, but they also do things like raw artichoke salad, fried zucchini flowers, lots of things with fish, or with peppers… stuff you associate with the sun—the Mediterranean sun, to be exact.
But if you do go to Nice, then you really have to head down to the beach. It’s the beach that is, to me, the most distinctive thing about the city.
For one thing, Nice is one of those rare, happy cities that has a beach running along its entirety. Not just a coastline, but a real beach, with umbrellas and gentle surf and bare breasts (this is France, remember). You’re never too far from this beach when you’re in Nice, and that might have something to do with the city’s distinct atmosphere.
It’s not your everyday beach, though. The beach in Nice is not made of sand, it’s made of three hundred gazillion flat little round stones (that’s an approximation, I never counted them). These stones are grey, and surprisingly, they don’t hurt your feet if you walk on them barefoot. Agreed, it’s not particularly pleasant, and it takes some getting used to, but you won’t get sand in your shoes if you happen to head down to the beach during your lunch break or something. This also means that when the itty-bitty waves come up to the shore (the Mediterranean is not an ocean, remember, and it tends to make itty-bitty sea waves, not great big ocean waves) they make this really cool sound, kind of like onions frying in a garbage can.
But best of all, all those flat round stones means that Nice is the world’s absolute best place to skip stones into the water.
I have skipped a lot of stones in my life. I have spent hours looking for the right skipping stone to send bouncing across the surface of some body of water or another. When the film Amélie came out I was happy to see that the charming heroine shared a similar pastime, and I went to check out the skipping possibilities at the Canal St. Martin, like she did. I don’t know where she found her stones, she must have had them shipped in, because pickings are scarce in that part of Paris. At the beach in Nice, though, the entire beach is made of skipping stones! There are small ones and big ones and elliptical ones and circular ones, all of them flat and more or less round. What more could you ask?
I should also say that my habit of skipping stones was responsible for me once almost getting arrested in Nice. I was young, recently arrived in France, and I had gone to Corsica for a few days to try to recover from a bout of heartache. On my way back I realized I had no money whatsoever, and I ran into a deserter from the Swiss army (which is highly unlikely… nobody deserts from the Swiss army, but that’s what he said) who likewise had no money and, like me, was sleeping on the deck of the ferry. We pooled our resources upon arrival in Nice, and bought a packet of spaghetti and some tomato sauce, then headed down to the beach to cook it up (he had a pot of sorts and we somehow found some wood for a fire). It was the middle of winter, the beach was empty, and we tried to hide to avoid the prying eyes of the law, because it’s illegal to build a fire on the beach. I, though, couldn’t resist skipping some stones… when you’re young and brimming with heartache, skipping stones on a beach like Nice’s is inevitable. I had found some beautiful stones… I remember them to this day… and the sea was flat and calm, which of course helps. Skipping stones is not discrete, though—or at least not as discrete as hiding crouched in the nook of a seawall, so the police came down and started after us, causing us to abandon the pasta, and the pot, and scurry away. Poor vagrants are no more appreciated in Nice than open flames.
I’m in Nice as I write this, in fact; sitting at a café under a brilliant sun with an espresso in front of me and a fountain nearby. I was just at the beach, and even though it’s only April, there was no lack of scantily-clad bathers and snoozing visitors. Despite the proximity of bare breasts and my purely artistic appreciation of them, it was a man who captured my attention. He was teaching his young son how to skip stones.
Maybe I should move down here.