The French Riviera – with Nice at its core – is a world-renowned vacation destination where millions travel each year to experience the warm weather, great vistas, and beautifully fresh cuisine.
Maybe because it was February, maybe because it was Carnaval – but we didn’t quite feel this way. We had such high hopes for a beautiful old world beach town and our first sight of the Mediterranean. While we certainly enjoyed our time away from the big metropolitan cities of the north (and finally getting a sun break or two), it was far from the pristine picture in our minds – grubby in spots, very commercial, and the beach made entirely of rocks.
Venturing towards the water’s edge from the main commercial area of town (and the train station), the cute little old town of Nice was very typical of the many other old towns throughout the country. Small, dark, winding streets full of shops and restaurants in an old-world opulence kind of way. Getting lost amongst the cobblestone streets was part of the fun, as many of the stores in the heart of old town had local provincial goods.
Every morning between 8:00AM and 1:00PM along Cours Saleya (a parallel street to the water’s edge where stunning arches allow the blue water of the Mediterranean to nod hello to those passing by) market stalls are set up selling wonderful local produce, meats, olives, sweets, and ceramics. Unfortunately for us, we did not have a well-equipped kitchen in our Airbnb or we would have taken full advantage of the beautiful goods and cook in a couple of nights (after all, the chef needs to keep up his skills rights?). Vendors are likely to make deals after the 12:00NOON cannon goes off- a LOUD boom notifying the vendors it’s time to begin packing up- which completely caught us off guard our first day in town! The beginning of the street hosts a flower market, Marche aux Fleurs, which stays open until around 4:00PM. I imagine each household in Nice always has a lovely bouquet on their table.
The fun comes on Monday morning, when all the food items are put away and thousands of antiques are unloaded. Such a wide range of items from furniture and kitchen wares to weapons and old advertisements – I’m pretty sure we will be taking a trip back to Nice in the future to load up a suitcase or two! Because who doesn’t need battered up copper pots, mixed silver, and a vintage Chanel bag?
Just past the dark streets of old town, castle hill rises straight up out of the Mediterranean waters. Taking advantage of the free workout, we climbed the winding staircases to the multiple vista points overlooking Nice’s red-tiled roofs and spanning view of the Sea. This site has been occupied since ancient times, more recently by a medieval castle which was conquered and dismantled by Louis the XIV in 1706. An absolute highlight of the city, this peaceful forested oasis peppered with ancient ruins and stunning views from all sides, cannot be missed!
Ahhh the first taste of the Mediterranean. Gone were the days of preserved, rich and fatty foods. Bring on the fresh seafood and local produce!
La Merenda – 4 Rue Raoul Bosio, 06300 Nice, France
In this tiny little 24 seat restaurant, a 2 Michelin star chef gave up the “fame” and stars to open this location run by he and his wife. A small menu written in chalk, features dishes he feels like cooking up that day. We started the meal with the fresh Pates au Pistou (spinach pasta with French pesto), and it was some of the best we have ever had. Complex stockfish stew and tripe sausage, both local rustic specialties, did not disappoint. Our meal was finished with a plate of young goat cheese drizzled in Olive Oil. While the server had that rude French attitude we had yet to experience (and questioned our American palates multiple times which to us, was insulting) all the dishes were so simple, yet bursting with flavor. A top contender for best meal in France!
Boulangerie Jeannot – 8 Rue Saint-François de Paule, 06300 Nice, France
A lovely bakery just on the edge of Cours Saleya Market, perfect for your morning pastry or that afternoon espresso and savory delight. On par with some of our favorite spots in Paris, this busy spot did not disappoint. We especially loved the small breads twisted with items like jamon and cheese or gorgonzola and walnuts.
You cannot wander the streets of old town and the market without running into about a dozen places selling Socca. This chickpea pancake is a classic Nicoise street food, chopped up and served piping hot from a huge round pan. Pissaladiere, another delicious classic, is a caramelized onion tart topped with a single olive. Both good inexpensive snacks to grab while bustling on to your next destination or exploring the streets when most other places are closed.
European Mardi Gras – a two-week celebration full of entertainment and energy. While it was not quite what we had expected (a full blown nonstop street party), the two parades that we attended were still enjoyable. During the day, the flower battles featured floats dripping with fresh arrangements and young women dressed up in a themed costume complementary to their float. The excitement of this parade is the throwing of flowers into the crowd (by the end their floats are completely bare of any bloom!). Between each float a troop of performers from drum lines to traditional Bolivian dancers, entertained the crowd.
At night, the parade route comes alive with multicolored lights and patrons in costume. 17 imaginative floats, this year in the theme of the King of Energy, proceed around the route showing off a year’s works of artistry. The floats were incredible, many as tall as three stories and one float even close to 50 feet long across multiple wheeled platforms! Political Satire is also a common subject for many of the floats, this year featuring Donald Trump, The US and China, as well other European political leaders. Many of the same performers from the flower parade were positioned between the evening’s floats, but outfits and routines altered for the high-energy festivities
Unfortunately, the world is a changed place this year especially in Nice where a terrorist attack last summer has left the city on edge for large gatherings such as “the biggest carnival celebration in Europe”. Due to this, security was heightened, and the parade was contained to a small circular area around Place Massena. It was a relief that no one seemed apprehensive, and at no point did we feel nervous. It is our hope that these events will become a distant memory and Carnaval can return to the large open celebration it once was!
Our Stark Perspective (Tips)
- We wouldn’t make a trip to Nice especially for Carnaval, but if you happen to be in the south of France, be sure to check out the much more entertaining light parade in the evening and for less than half the cost!
- Buy a standing room ticket in Zone A to get the best action and views of the floats and performers.
- Accommodations near the water or in old town will allow for a much better and more authentic feel of the city.
- If you can, take advantage of the market – especially sampling the socca and fresh olives.
- While the weather may be mild, it can still get chilly in the winter evenings. Spring and Fall would be the best time to visit, to avoid the huge tourist crowds.