Artistic treasures found in Cote d’Azur

Nice parade

Photos and report by Samuel Gaytan
San Antonio Express-News

NICE, France — Nice is perhaps the most beautiful city on the Riviera in terms of spirit and hospitality.

With English spoken by many (and smiling, sign-language commerce understood by all), one quickly feels at home in this city of nearly 400,000 – the largest city on the French Riviera.

Whether celebrating cuisine, culture or art, the city serves each with a friendly joie de vivre that translates instantly into favorite memories.

Nowhere is the artistic wealth of the Riviera more apparent than in Nice, with its 16 museums housed in villas, palaces and modern monuments.

Artists ranging from Chagall to Matisse discovered the beauty of the area and the azure Mediterranean sky (which inspired the term Cote d’Azur) and found in it a climate that fostered creativity.

View of Nice, France
The beautiful blue water is only one attraction in Nice, France.

The Musee Matisse in the 17th-century Villa des Arenes features dozens of paintings, 236 drawings, 218 engravings and 57 sculptures, making it the most important collection of his works still in France. It also houses many of his personal belongings, furniture and private collection of art.

On the way to the entrance, note the Musee Archeologique de Cimiez (the site of the ancient city of Cemenelum, founded in 14 B.C.), especially the Roman town’s uncovered bathhouse and water system. In only a few steps, one goes from a glimpse at antiquity to the wonder of trompe l’oeil on the outside windows of the museum’s red upper floors, then is transported to a more modern setting by steps taken down to the Matisse museum’s recently constructed modern entrance.

The large cut-out gouaches of “Flowers and Fruits,” the artist’s last work (1953), take up the wall facing visitors at the entrance.

Lighting fixtures that are sculptural works in their own right accent the museum, as do window treatments that diffuse the sunlight without defeating it. Sculptures of various sizes and media add accents to the different rooms throughout.

Of particular interest are sketches and models made for the chapel at Vence, as well as vestments designed for religious services. The vestments were worn at the memorial services for Matisse and still are used on special occasions. Matisse’s final resting place is the cemetery at the Franciscan Monastery of Cimiez.

Nearby is the Allee Dizzy Gillespie, where an annual jazz festival is held in summer near an olive grove.

Chagall, who died in 1985 in St. Paul, is honored with the Musee Marc-Chagall, which features his 17 paintings with scenes inspired by the Old Testament, as well as sculptures, lithographs and sketches.

More contemporary work is the focus of the Musee d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain. Avant-garde works from the 1960s to the present are displayed in the creations of French, Nicois and U.S. artists such as Yves Klein, Martial Raysse, Warhol, Rauschenberg and Serra. The museum is holding a Man Ray retrospective that ends June 9. The exhibit features more than 500 of his works, ranging from collages to photographs that span decades of his friendships and use other artists and fine-arts celebrities as subjects.

Nice contemporary art museum
Musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain

Other museums highlight Nice and France’s rich cultural past. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire Palais Massena. Take time to visit the museum and to ask questions: A quick visit will fail to fully uncover the treasures inside. While Belle Epoque furnishings and other details shine, other treasures lie almost hidden within the museum’s walls.

Among the museum’s collection of 15th- to 18th-century armor and weapons is a sword that reputedly belonged to Joan of Arc.

Also among the Massena’s treasures is a gold, silver, ivory, ruby and sapphire diadem worn by Josephine when Napoleon was crowned king of Italy.

Another item of interest is a clock with the time of different capitals in Europe that belonged to the war minister of the last leader of the Ottoman Empire.

But the museum also sheds light on how traditions influence the artists of today, with “Matisse et la Mode” set for summer, revealing the fashions used by Matisse to dress his models, as well as staging shows that detail how couturiers have been inspired by him.

The art tradition continues through the work of contemporary institutions such as Villa Arson. Students who live on the campus join other artists in displaying their works in exhibits throughout the year.

The art tradition along the coast is so strong that this year more than 20 museums and galleries have joined to present “La Cote d’Azur et la Modernite,” from June 27 to Oct. 20. Painting, sculpture, dance, music, literature, photography, architecture and cinema along the coast from 1918 to 1958 will be celebrated. A pass can be bought that will give visitors admission to participating museums and galleries.

Art lovers could spend a lifetime along the Cote d’Azur without ever satiating their appetite for creativity, whether it is in one of the many museums or in the architectural details of the palaces, churches and homes throughout the area.

But art is only one of Nice’s gifts.

The greatest is its people.

The Musee Matisse
The Musee Matisse

Nice’s Carnaval ’97 brought together thousands in festivities uniting the city in a joyous celebration that has its first mention in 1294, when Charles II of Anjou, Count of Provence, went to Nice to celebrate the “joyous days of Carnaval.”

The carnaval has undergone many incarnations, but the most modern have served to make it accessible to all.

This year’s carnaval, which was Feb. 8-23, featured a “King of Sports” theme. France’s Olympic gold medalists were the honored guests, but everyone was welcome.

The carnaval’s Bataille de Fleurs parades featured floats created by members of L’Amicale des Re-alisatuers des Batailles de Fleurs, a group that uses several tons of flowers to put together the colorful displays that carried Carnaval’s queen and her court.

As the floats paraded down the Promenade des Anglais, which hugs the Mediterranean shoreline, the young, attractive French women in their festival pageantry tossed mimosa blossoms into the audience. The flowers represent the floral past of the area, where perfume-makers – and now also florists – have turned for sweet-smelling crops.

In between the royal floats, marching bands and dancers, as well as others ranging from “Blue Men” to giant heads, keep the crowd entertained.

Nice also knows how to throw an even more interactive parade. The nighttime Procession of Lights parades were highlighted by animated floats featuring gigantic sports characters interspersed with giant marching papier-mache heads. The crews on board the floats, mostly students, engage in Silly String duels with spectators, who in between floats turn on each other amid good-natured laughter.

But aside from staying out of the way of the floats and not bumping into a giant head (which can be painful), feel free to lose yourself in the family-oriented celebration. Regardless of age, everyone had good, clean (Silly String residue being the exception) fun. Parents can be secure in the knowledge that the parades are wholesome in nature and the high spirits are strictly of the emotional kind.

Sculptures at the Musee Matisse
Sculptures at the Musee Matisse

Adults will marvel at the spectacle and children will laugh with the frivolity, but both will revel in the joy.

Between celebrations and museum tours, take time to discover Nice’s Old Town, or Vieux Nice.

Within walking distance of the plaza near the Promenade des Anglais, the area features distinctive architecture (some dating back to medieval times), with bistros, bakeries and shops on the bottom floors while families live on the higher ones.

Wash flaps in the breeze as visitors walk below, sampling the tasty yet inexpensive food the neighborhood offers. The Old Town is the place to visit for bargains and quick bites. Definitely try socca at a bistro. The grilled pancake finger-food of chick peas and olive oil will pleasantly surprise first-time tasters. It’s cheap, fast and filling – the ideal food to fuel up on between discoveries. But you also can find roasted chickens and other items for sale, so feel free to mix-and-match a meal while visiting the Old Town.

Visit Place Rossetti afterward for a taste of ice cream at Fenocchio Glacier, best described as edible incense: The texture, taste and color transcends any ice cream experience in the States.

Shops offer everything from wine to all the items olive lovers could want, including several varieties of olives, olive presses and olive-oil containers. Clothing, jewelry and art also are available.

Chefs from the city’s finest restaurants visit the Old Town’s market every morning to stock up on the area’s fresh produce. The fish market’s top fare also makes its way to restaurant tables later in the day. Flower lovers search through the market’s stands in pursuit of the perfect bloom.

Nice also can serve as perhaps the ideal place from which to discover the rest of the French Riviera.

With 10,000 rooms in every price range, accommodations can be found for any budget. The Acropolis Convention and Exhibition Center is the top convention center in Europe.

Travel is available by sea, train, helicopters, buses and rental cars. Monte Carlo and Cannes are only 30 minutes away by car; St. Paul de Vence is only 15 minutes away.

Buses leave Nice’s bus station regularly, and groups can rent a van with a driver/tour guide for around $300 a day. While expensive, if you are traveling with a group, this could be the best way to discover the area. Our driver, Stephane Zanetta of Mini Bus Service, saved us time with his knowledge of the area and never ceased to amaze us with his ability to parallel park perfectly despite our unnerving cries of “Watch out!”

Nice, protected from winter winds by mountains to the north and west and cooled in the summer by sea breezes, has an average of 300 days of sunlight a year. During my visit in February, a light coat was the only protection I needed, although the nights can get a bit chilly. During the day you often can go about in shirt sleeves.

The weather is undoubtedly one of the factors that led Queen Victoria to make it her winter home, although it’s highly doubtful she ever partook of one of the city’s boasts that it is one of the few places in the world where visitors can swim in the morning and ski in the afternoon.

Silly String is part of the Procession of Lights.
Silly String is part of the Procession of Lights.

For people who don’t have their own palace to stay in, the next best place in Nice would be the Hotel Negresco.

Each of the hotel’s floors is decorated in a unique style, with the second floor decorated with modern and contemporary paintings and tapestries (featuring the works of Cocteau); the third floor in Louis XV; the fourth in Empire; and the fifth in Napoleon III.

The first floor features several busts, as well as the spectacular dome sitting area, the Salon Royal, featuring sparkling Baccarat crystal in the chandelier overhead. A copy hangs in the Kremlin. The carpet in the Salon Royal is the largest ever made by the Savonnerie Factory, which produced many of the carpets for royal residences, including the Palace of Versailles. Created in 1912, the carpet cost a tenth of the total cost of the hotel.

To merely call the Negresco a hotel fails to pay tribute to the extensive art collection in this Historic National Monument or the parade of royalty and celebrities who have passed through its halls, including Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, President Truman, Hemingway, Chagall, Picasso, Matisse, the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin and Salvador Dali.

But the Negresco’s richness does not end there. Its Restaurant Chantecler is perhaps as important a reason to visit it as the art or antiques it houses.

While all the courses were outstanding, my favorite was dessert: sorbet goyave passion. It alone is worth a visit to the Chantecler.

While the Negresco is pricey (a stay in the suite where the Beatles wrote “Fool on the Hill” will cost more than $1,500 a night), it is perhaps the most original and captivating of the hotels along the Riviera.

But if you want to save some cash, you can’t go wrong with the Hotel Plaza Concorde. The Plaza offers an outstanding central location from which to discover some of Nice’s most attractive features: Old Town, the Promenade des Anglais, and the staging areas for the carnival parades.

All are within walking distance, as is Brasserie Flo, which is a former theater turned into a restaurant. Diners can watch their meals being prepared in the glass-walled kitchen framed by theater curtains.

Here, you can enjoy traditional Nicois specialties or, if you’re a Texan starting to miss beef, dig into steak and fries.

And if you’re really homesick for American food, there are plenty of McDonald’s restaurants to keep you occupied. Don’t feel like getting out of your car? Cruise through a handy McDrive, then get back to discovering the true Riviera.