The French Riviera: Places to Explore

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Nice

United with France only since 1860, Nice has its own history and atmosphere, exemplified by the stark contrast between the openness and modernity of the Promenade des Anglais to the narrow, ocher-tinted streets of the Old Town against the center of town and the sleek tramway whizzing down the main shopping thoroughfare Avenue Jean Médecin. (A second tramway line running to the airport is expected to be operational by 2017.)

It was on Colline du Château (now château-less) and at the Plage des Ponchettes, in front of the Old Town, that the Greeks established a market-port and named it Nikaia. Having already established Marseilles as early as the 4th century BC, they branched out along the coast and founded the city that would become Marseilles' chief coastal rival. The Romans established themselves a little later on the hills of Cimiez (Cemenelum), already previously occupied by Ligurians and Celts, and quickly overshadowed the waterfront port. After falling to the Saracen invasions, Nice regained power as an independent state, becoming an important port in the early Middle Ages.

So cocksure did it become that in 1388, Nice, along with the hill towns behind, effectively seceded from the county of Provence, under Louis d'Anjou, and allied itself with Savoie. Thus began its liaison with the House of Savoy, and through it with Piedmont and Sardinia, it was the Comté de Nice (Nice County). This relationship lasted some 500 years, tinting the culture, architecture, and dialect in rich Italian hues.

By the 19th century Nice was flourishing commercially, locked in rivalry with the neighboring shipping port of Genoa. Another source of income: the dawning of tourism, as first the English, then the Russian nobility discovered its extraordinary climate and superb waterfront position. A parade of fine stone mansions and hotels closed into a nearly solid wall of masonry, separated from the smooth-round rocks of the beach by what was originally named Camin deis Anglés (the English Way), which of course is now the famous Promenade des Anglais, lined by grand hotels; this magnificent crescent is one of the noblest in France.

Many of Nice's most delightful attractions—the Cours Saleya market, the Old Town streets, the Hotel Negresco, and the Palais Masséna—are on or close to Nice's 10-kilometer (6-mile) waterfront, making it the first stop for most visitors. The redevelopment of Nice's port, around the other side of the château, makes it easier for amblers who want to take in the Genoese architecture in this area, or peruse the antiques at the Puces de Nice along Quai Papacino. In September, the port is transformed into an eating adventure (one of the rare occasions you'll witness the French walk and eat simultaneously) during La Fête du Port.

Nice residents by and large support a popular and ambitious mayor, Christian Estrosi, president of France's first metropolis, Metropole Nice Côte d'Azur, created in 2010 with 46 communes. Estrosi has introduced some forward-thinking initiatives that have earned the city two recent honors. First, on the national front, the "Family Plus" label (the airport has free pushchairs, play areas, and restaurants with child-friendly activities) and second, and another first in France, the international "Gay comfort" label from the association IGLTA (Inter-national Gay and Lesbian Travel Association). As a leading destination for gay couples, all Gay Welcoming hotels, restaurants and shops in the Riviera capital display "a natural iridescence" sign. A brochure in English for Family Friendly Nice and Gay Friendly Nice can be downloaded at en.nicetourisme.com.

Estrosi's most ambitious project, however, is to make Nice "the Green City of the Mediterranean," and he's pulled out all the stops. Already he made available rentable bikes and electric cars, but his chef-d'ouevre is the Promenade de Paillon, a 12-hectare park in the middle of town, running from the Théâtre de Verdure (across from McDonald's on the Prom') to the Museum of Modern Art, inaugurated in October 2013.

Nice's population is about 347,000, and they are seeing the changes afoot. Case in point: while there are "Made in France" and "Nissart cuisine" movements on the rise protecting all that is near and dear to the French, the invasion of Starbucks and the Hard Rock Café can't be staved off at sea.

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