Monday, August 29, 2011

Everyday is market day on Cours Saleya. Summer 2011 Travelogue (5)

Cours Saleya, Nice (between 1890 and 1905)

It's been a week since I returned from my most excellent adventure in Nice. Déjà. (Already.)

I miss you, Nice, mon amie. I miss your blue skies, the Mediterranean, your colorful walls, your olive trees and giant palm trees. I can't wait to see you again. Do you want to know how much I miss you? Look at what I brought home a few days ago.

My little piece of Provence...

That's right, it's an olive tree. OK, a baby olive tree. It will not survive in Seattle if I don't bring it inside in the winter, but I thought I would give it a try. Every time I look at it, I will be reminded of you, Nice, and of my walk through that beautiful olive grove, on Cimiez hill. Nostalgique, moi? Un peu.

Today I would like to tell the story of a favorite place of mine: le Cours Saleya. That street, as the French say, is "in-con-tour-na-ble" (not to be missed.)

I did not spend a single day in Nice without walking along le Cours Saleya at least once. It was different every time. The light, the people, the colors, kept changing on me. Still, it felt oddly familiar by the end of my first weekend there.

Le Cours Saleya neighborhood has always been the heart of Nice. Ideally located, it sits by the Old Town, and a few steps away from the Mediterranean. It was built near the old ramparts (they protected the city and were dismantled in 1706.) The old walls were replaced by two rows of contiguous houses. Known as "les Ponchettes," (*) they were originally small warehouses where fishermen stored their gear. Their roofs were flat, and as early as the 18th century, they started acting as terraces where locals and visitors used to stroll, admiring the Mediterranean nearby and those glorious Nice sunsets.

Le Cours Saleya developed next to them, replacing the former gardens of the old Ducal palace (today's préfecture, seat of the region's government.) On the following picture, you can see the two rows of "Ponchettes", and the Cours Saleya market stalls behind them. 

Elegant boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops soon opened on Cours Saleya, attracting more visitors. By 1839 the  Visconti bookstore, complete with a terrace, became the intellectual center of Nice, the place to see and to be seen. 

In 1861, the Saleya fruit and vegetable market, soon followed by the flower market, were born. Producers and wholesalers struck deals all week long. From there, flowers were shipped expeditiously all over Europe. The market kept growing. So did its reputation, and the crowds.

In 1873, the modern version of the famous Nice Carnival took place cours Saleya every winter.

Cours Saleya: the Fish Market (1900, Rose Calvino)

Today, Cours Saleya survives and continues to entertain and enthrall visitors. Is it the faded buildings with stunning façades glowing in the sunset? The sounds, the colors, the sheer energy of the place? The vendors calling out? The smell of spices, fresh herbs, and flowers? Hard to tell. All of the above.

The old terraces on top of "les Ponchettes" (*) are now closed. The Carnival has been moved to a different neighborhood. In 1980, Cours Saleya became a "pedestrian-only" area when a parking lot was built underground. A smart move. 

Deals are still being made, though wholesalers have left. Merchants and visitors engage in friendly banter. The selection is varied and oh, so tempting. Flowers and herbs, fragrant hand-milled soaps and fresh produce in the mornings, except Mondays, when antiques (more of a flea market, really) take over. Jewelry and crafts at night, when restaurants and cafés sprawl out in the street, greeting diners. 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Nowhere is it more true than at the Cours Saleya's market.

Cours Saleya market: Greeting shoppers during the day...
Cours Saleya: Welcoming diners at night
Antiques and bric-à-brac

Marseilles hand-milled soap bars

Zucchini flowers are used to make flower fritters, a local delicacy

These small courgettes are perfect to prepare "les petits farcis" 
(stuffed vegetables)

Fruit and vegetable are the market's true stars, or are they? 

Meet Thereza, the market's self-proclaimed "Queen." She has been featured in many guidebooks and television shows for years. You might say she is a local celebrity. 

The colorful Thereza claims she makes the best socca in Nice, you see. Socca used to be a snack for peasants and workers. It is the poor man's food if you will. Thereza charges 3 Euros for a generous serving of this very thin and soft pancake, served slightly crispy on the edges. Ingredients? Chickpea flour and olive oil. It is quite tasty, even if you are not hungry.

Thereza has been doing this for a long time. She is, as the French say, a "maîtresse femme." In other words, you don't mess with Thereza! Her husband cooks la socca in a small shop located two blocks away from my studio in the heart of the Old Town. As soon as it comes out of the oven, he loads the big pan on his scooter, and rushes to le Cours Saleya where the formidable Thereza (and impatient customers) are waiting. Within seconds, a line forms and she wastes no time slicing and serving la socca. It takes less than 5 minutes for the big dish to be empty.  

People are waiting but nobody cuts the line: Thereza would not approve!

Whether Thereza (and her husband) do, actually, make the best socca, remains to be seen. Does it matter? One thing is for certain: Thereza delivers one of the best shows in town.

There is so much more I could write about Nice, and so many photos I could post. Instead, I will let my good friend Rick Steves wrap up this most excellent adventure. After all, he has proved a faithful travel companion during this trip. Merci pour les tuyaux, Rick (thanks for the travel tips, Rick.)

One last thing: While watching this short video, pay special attention to Cours Saleya (2:20) and meet the great Thereza, Queen of the Market! (2:50) A bientôt.
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Saturday, August 20, 2011

As if the world needed more reasons to love Nice! Summer 2011 Travelogue (4)

Life is a [fancy, pebbled] beach in Nice

"[Nice], the Côte d'Azur capital is a sparky, sexy city, with a gritty underside that keeps it grounded. If Nice was a person, it would wear designer cocktail dresses with tatty old army boots (laces undone) and cause loads of trouble."

--Lonely Planet, Provence and the Côte d'Azur. April 2007 edition.

A long time ago, I fell in love with the idea of Nice and the French Riviera before I even took my first trip here. There were so many stories, and legends. Painters, writers, celebrities have come here, only to become enamored with the light, the vibrancy, the lifestyle. Some stayed. Matisse. Chagall. Others opted to live in fancy French Riviera palaces, or purchased summer properties around Nice. Francis Scott Fitzgerald. French writer and artist Jean Cocteau. Musicians like Elton John, Keith Richards, or U2's Bono (who lives outside of Eze near Villefranche-sur-Mer.) Actor Sean Connery. 

Years later, I stopped by for quick visits, usually in the summer. My impression was that Nice was hot, and beautiful, and... crowded. I did not come back for a long time. This summer, finally, Nice and I were properly introduced. Nice was busy entertaining this week, you see. Yet, she made time for me, the French-Americanized tourist. True to her reputation, she opened her arms, welcomed me and always put on her best face during my visit. 

The Greeks, then the Romans came here first. Nice existed well before English aristocrats turned the city into a spa town (and their favorite playground) in the early 19th century.  Nice was still Italian then! When they actually agreed to pay for the Promenade des Anglais (Walkway of the English) to be developed and paved so they would not get their feet dirty while walking in the sun, Nice was on its way. It soon became the Riviera's shining star. It still is today. 

Promenade des Anglais during la Belle-Epoque (mid 1830s)

In the late 19th century, England's Queen Victoria loved Nice so much that she had a whole wing of the then-famous Regina hotel built just for her and her entourage. It has since then been converted into private residences but I was lucky to walk past it the day I visited Cimiez hill. European aristocrats, wealthy Russians soon followed in England's footsteps. Once Nice became French in 1860, Napoleon III and his wife, l'Impératrice Eugénie, loved staying here. The Empress is credited for bringing exotic plants to Nice. Merci, Eugénie. Nice would not be the same without those majestic palm trees. 

After WWII, more people had time and money to travel in the summer. In 1936, France introduced new, progressive legislation, thus enabling workers to enjoy two weeks of paid vacation a year: les Congés payés. Mass tourism was born. 

Jean Klissac, Les Congés Payés (1982) 

A true melting pot, Nissa la Bella (Nice the Beautiful) has continued offering hospitality to all. Tourists. Immigrants. Pieds Noirs(*) This is one of my favorite things about this city. 

Another reason to love Nice: The city strikes me as democratic, in the true sense of the word. Along the French Riviera, glitzy towns like Saint Tropez and Cannes, and even more so the Principality of Monaco, display good looks galore, yet they could be referred to as "bling-bling." It is not a compliment. President Sarkozy found out the hard way when the French started referring to him as "Le président bling-bling" after his election. They were mocking his ostentatious display of flashy, expensive items and his affluent lifestyle. In France, it is not in good taste to show off wealth if you have it. Sarkozy has since then toned down his personal style (under his wife's influence, according to some.) 

Don't get me wrong, Nice offers plenty of "bling-bling" if opulence is what you are looking for. An evening stroll on "la Prom" (la Promenade des Anglais) always guarantees an entertaining show. Fancy hotels, fancy cars, fancy people. You get the picture. 

Le Negresco: Nice's fanciest hotel - Promenade des Anglais
A friendly waiter took me on a private tour of the Negresco hotel:
The stained glass ceiling in the Salon Royal was designed by Gustave Eiffel
One of the world's two chandeliers of its kind:
Made of Baccarat crystal (the other one is inside the Kremlin!)
Nice's "other palace": Le Palais de la Méditerranée
The art deco building was originally a casino. It reopened in 2004.

In Nice, the "bling-bling" crowd and regular people (locals and tourists, families, backpackers, aspiring artists,) live side by side, or so it seems. Example: For each private beach access such as the one pictured at the top of this story, there is also a public beach, right next to it. And they are separated by a very small fence. 

Nice public beach at 8:00pm - Promenade des Anglais

Volley ball court - Public beach

When I decided to go and lay down on the beach on Saturday (in 95F degree heat, this seemed like a reasonable thing to do,) I went and rented my comfortable chair at one of the private beaches. This got me off the famous Nice pebbles, and entitled me to excellent service from a few friendly cabana boys. I did not even have to break the bank!

14 Euros (20 USD) got me a chair, an umbrella, 
and a place to change for the day

Just so this story does not appear too blatantly "pro-Nice"  - Quoi? Biased, moi? - let me make one complaint here. I do not like pebbled beaches. I tried walking on the beach along la Baie des Anges (the Bay of Angels) and failed. I even twisted my ankle a few times. I did not see one single child playing on the beach: There is no sand. I watched as swimmers tried to come out of the warm Mediterranean in a dignified manner. To no avail. They slipped on the pebbles, rocked by the surf, and kept falling back in. Good thing Nice's neighbor Villefranche-sur-Mer has beautiful sandy beaches. That's where I would swim if I lived here! I guess Nice isn't perfect after all. That's ok. I forgive you, Nice.

Not to worry. Nice has more assets up her sleeve: For those of us who do not spend all their vacation time laying in the sun, but who enjoy exploring, shopping, people and building-watching, the city offers an appealing selection of options. I have already taken you on a few of my little sightseeing adventures. There were a few more (a trip to the mythical Provençal village of Saint Paul de Vence; a visit to Nice's next door neighbor, lovely Villefranche-sur-Mer) and I may document them later.

French Girl in her best "tourist impersonation" -
Villefranche-sur-Mer rade (harbor)

If I were to list more reasons to love downtown Nice, I would say that this is a city to be enjoyed in all seasons. When the weather inevitably cools off in late fall, there are free museums all over town. I visited three of them but saved a couple for my next trip. 

I do not know much about architecture, but I have been fascinated with the variety of local styles and colors. If the city is picturesque in the daytime, it literally shines at night. To top it all, staying in Nice feels like having one foot in France, and one foot in Italy. Pretty incroyable!

La Place Masséna (Massena Square): colorful and 100% pedestrian friendly
7 statues representing 7 continents: 
They tower above Place Massena while changing colors
Old Town: Cathedral of St. Réparate (named after Nice's patron saint)
The Ducal palace, former home of the Kings of Sardinia
(the city's Italian rulers until 1860)

In love with colorful Nice façades

I am so happy my modest fifth-floor, no elevator, 272 square feet studio was located in the heart of the Old Town. No hotel can match the benefits of renting your own place. If you stay in a city for a few days, living in the heart of a local neighborhood will make you feel like you belong there. Fancy resorts have their fancy perks, but one of their main drawbacks is to cut you off from local life. 

The Old Town is a very special place. From my little window (it remained wide open the whole time I was there,) I could hear the neighborhood waking up in the morning; the chatter of the restaurant's patrons in front of my building; the church bells ringing late afternoon. Ah, city life. My personal bliss. Another perk: All of the Old Town is prohibited to vehicle traffic. Imagine the luxury. 

The Old Town at its most photogenic
Glorious colors in the sunset: Matisse lived here in the 1920s 
France or Italy? 

Nice offers excellent food options. My landlord recommended a few reliable addresses in town. I chose to have some of my meals in the studio. I avoided dinnertime crowds and was able to splurge at some well-known restaurants along the way. Château Eza in Eze. La Mère Germain in Villefranche-sur-Mer. 

La Mère Germain, Villefranche-sur-Mer 
Calamari "a la plancha," on a bed of greens and chanterelles... Délicieux!
Café Marché:
My favorite breakfast joint in the Old Town, one block from the studio

Shopping is another good reason to love Nice. The district between la place Masséna and la rue Jean Médecin is shopper-Heaven. From boutiques to favorite chain stores, Nice has it all. A mall (Nice-Etoile,) a worthy local branch of the famed Parisian department store les Galeries Lafayette, la Fnac (books, electronics, movies, music,) high-end boutiques, several Monoprix. Everyone who has lived in France even for a short while knows how much easier life becomes if one lives next to a Monoprix!

Monoprix: The French city-dweller's saving grace!
I confess to making a few purchases when I saw the new fall collection!

In case I needed one more reason to love Nice, I was introduced to Cours Saleya the day I arrived, and I made sure I walked through the busy street every day, whatever my destination. After all, all great French cities have a great outdoor market. Nice is no exception. Showcasing a produce and flower market most mornings (Mondays are reserved for antiques), le Cours Saleya becomes even livelier at night when merchant stalls are replaced by restaurant tables. Touristy? Yes, but it is not to be missed. I won't say more now as I am planning to write a special story about this special street later. Maybe next week, pourquoi pas?

Lively Saleya market during the day

Produce and flower market on weekdays

All good things have an end and after spending a week in la Belle Nice, it is time to go home. Junior, le Husband, and Les pets will be waiting for me. I should land in Seattle late afternoon on Sunday. This has been a special experience for me, one I will treasure in the months to come. I am so happy I came here. I was lucky to get this unique opportunity to relax, write and read (mostly about Nice), and to follow every one of my whims. I know you moms out there understand me. 

If you ever find yourself thousands of miles away from home - alone - you could not dream of a better traveling companion than this city. Fun, energetic, generous, often classy, sometimes saucy: Nice and I got along famously. You may know I love movies. It is difficult to part with such a special friend. So, I will borrow Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine)'s famous line at the end of  Casablanca, the 1942 movie:

"[Nice], I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

A bientôt.


(*) Pieds-Noirs [Black Feet]: French citizens born in the old French colonies of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. They had to move back to the homeland, France, when those countries gained their independence between 1954 and 1962. Leaving their lives and possessions behind, many Pieds-Noirs settled in Southern France because of the warm weather. This proved a stressful and painful experience for many. My father and his family came from Boufarik, Algeria, and settled in the Toulouse area in 1962. I was born there a year later, but that's another story...