- Attracting the world’s most beautiful offspring who have been tripping over each other for years to feast in the finest restaurants and sip on the best wines, Nice isn’t a city that one would initially associate with budget-conscious travellers. But as Bob Dylan once famously sang, ‘the times, they are a-changin’.
We are now living in the time of the ‘flashpacker’, the backpacker who equips him or her self with the latest technology before lugging their designer backpack over their shoulders and setting off into the distant horizon. You see, the budget traveller of today is more likely to bob their heads to the tunes pumping out of their iPods than their discmen, has a higher chance of keeping in touch with their loved ones via text messages from their mobile phones than emails, and is sure to be waited upon night after night in restaurants rather than cook for themselves in their hostels. That is why this sun-kissed city is more used to backpackers than you would think.
Nice's famous promenade
Before I made my way to the beach the day I got to Nice (purely for research reasons, you understand), I took the liberty of taking a leisurely stroll along the city’s famous Promenade des Anglais. Spawned in 1822 after a bunch of affluent Englishmen pooled their funds together to create a shoreside path, I noticed you had to have your wits about you here. While enjoying the views I was required to be on high alert in order to weave my way between joggers, rollerbladers, tourists and sun worshippers, either on their way to or from the beach.
I also noticed that the rocky beach (no sand here I’m afraid) was segregated into areas with sun loungers and areas without. Decide to bear the brunt of lying on large round rocks while bronzing yourself and you’ll do so at no cost. Vouch for the white plastic chairs and someone will promptly attend to your lounger in search of a sum of money somewhere between €20 and €40. This is how the more privileged keep themselves at bay from the hoi polloi.
Make no mistake about it – Nice’s number one attraction is its beach. Granted, it doesn’t afford the sunbather a lot when it comes to comfort, but it’s why people flock to this city on the French Riviera in their droves. But as I had work to do, I didn’t stay here for long and wondered what was there to do for those who had intentions other than topping up their tan.
Explore its engaging old town known locally as Vieux Nice was just one solution. Different friends from all walks of life had told me how enchanting it was. They hadn’t lied. Strolling around its pedestrianised, labyrinthine, and pleasantly shaded streets, it began to slip my mind that I was in a city renowned for its coastal location. After wandering aimlessly around its streets for a while, I referred to my creased map and consequently visited some of its churches such as Cathédrale Ste-Réparate and Eglise de Gésu, walked through the Genoese-style Palais Lascaris, before walking up to Colline du Château for unrivalled views over the city.
One of France's best museums
When I returned to where I was staying, the receptionist behind the marble counter asked me what I had done with my day. As I divulged I noticed as productive as it was, I hadn’t done anything extremely cultural. Granted, Palais Lascaris is quite history-steeped, but I hadn’t been to any museums. That was when Nice’s Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain leapfrogged to the top of my to-do-list.
Located on the outskirts of the city, this extremely impressive building houses one of France’s best collections of New Realism and Pop Art. Works of Yves Klein and Andy Warhol make it a must-see. It is also close to the bus station where buses en route to ‘Cannes’ and ‘Monaco’ flow out on to the streets all day, triggering the decision to visit both aforementioned cities before leaving.
As both places are within less than an hour’s train ride from Nice, it would be insane not to see where Prince Albert resides or where Hollywood starlets and lead-men either flourish or wither every May.
The closest is Monaco which takes just twenty minutes to reach from Nice’s main train station. Its streets aren’t exactly paved with gold, but judging by some of the yachts and cars on parade, I assume the driveways of some of its mansions are. There is no shortage of money here. There is no shortage of tourists either, most of whom come to catch the changing of the guard at the palace, try their luck in the casino or see the hairpin from the Grand Prix.
Aboard a train headed in the other direction bound for Cannes and within forty minutes you will see where the coveted Palme d’Or is awarded every year. Considerably bigger than Monaco, Cannes does enjoy the pleasure of a sandy beach so if your back is beginning to take offence to lying down on a bed of rocks after a while, you may want to utilize your towel and sunscreen here instead.
As I was staying in the vicinity of the train station, I learned that this part of Nice is peppered with restaurants of an Asian variety. Here you can treat yourself to Singaporean, Thai, Indian, Chinese and Vietnamese fare. All do their utmost to lure tourists in with their set menus although many not always achieving this feat.
Vieux Nice is where it's at
For a better selection of restaurants wander the streets of Vieux Nice. Its streets and lanes are lined with pizzerias, Italians, tapas bars and more. Not only is the selection better, but the quality too. It’s worth waiting for a seat outside Restaurant du Gesú on Place du Jésus if all are occupied when you first arrive. Food is tasty and reasonable (most mains are less than €10), staff are efficient and friendly, plus it enjoys the backdrop of Eglise du Gesú, one of the old town's most beautiful churches.
Virtually every building on the old town’s Rue Benoit Bunico is a restaurant. One of them, Tart'in, is a no-frills pizzeria offering the cheapest pizza in town. Not in Vieux Nice but great for lunchtime snacks, Boulangerie Multari on rue Alphonse Karr has wisping aromas that are sure to entice.
Just as it is where to be for food, Vieux Nice is also where it’s happening after dusk. One venue that seems to be heaving no matter what the night is Wayne’s on Rue de la Préfecture. Well-groomed staff from both sexes attract, well, members of both sexes. Live music attracts others, while different themed nights draws in the rest. It keeps going until 2am when most pour out on to the street and shoot to Blue Whales, another hub for live music that finishes up at 4am.
Two of the city’s token Irish bars, O'Neill's and O’Hara’s, both on Vieux Nice’s Rue Droite, can be a quieter option, although O’Neill’s does get going on weekends and on Thursdays which is student night. Away from the old town the city is relatively quiet, but you will find a number of bars dotted around Place Magenta.
As glitzy and prosperous as the South of France is, there is still room for backpackers in Nice. Thousands of budget travellers adorn its beaches, promenades, restaurants and bars every day. If you’re going to join them, do yourself a favour and at least try and look like you’re rich and famous. You'll be glad you did.
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