Try as I might, the only image I could bring to mind when I pictured the Côte d'Azur was the backdrop of my high school's production of The Boy Friend. If I recall the decor correctly from nearly fifteen years ago, our minimalist hand painted set had a strip of sand, a red and white striped beach cabin and two bright blue bands of ocean and sky. It left a lot to the imagination, so when I finally set foot in Nice, there were plenty of details left to fill in.
My first surprise was that Nice is as much about the mountains as it is about the sea. The Côte d'Azur is where the Alps tumble abruptly into the Mediterranean with hardly a glance backward. Vieux Nice, the Promenade des Anglais along the beach, and a corridor along the river are flat, but the rest of city is forced to mount quickly into the surrounding hills.
The first hotels and the opera house have their main entrances facing inland. The nineteenth century aristocrats that shaped the city turned their backs on the sea. They came for the mild winter climate; stretching out all day in the sun in the heat of August is a 20th century invention.
Tucked at one end of the wide boulevard of the Promenade des Anglais is the village that became Vieux Nice. On our first evening in town, we wandered past the tourist shops selling identical bars of soap and jars of olive oil and tried to imagine Nice as a backwater without even a deep-water harbor to its name. It was easier when night fell and the shops started rolling down their shutters and dimming their lights and the narrow streets and modest buildings came to life.
I was glad I'd visited for the first time in the middle of November in the deadest part of the year. It felt like we had the beaches and the streets of town to ourselves, or close.
We stayed with my husband's uncle and aunt in their apartment in the Cimiez neighborhood in the first ring of hills above downtown. As in much of the city, nineteenth century hotels and villas are interspersed with 1960s and 70s apartment buildings. To my eye, the large, modern balconies with their concrete and tinted glass had nothing on the wrought-iron lace-lined windows of the Belle Epoque, but I learned that most Niçois thought the contrary. Everyone wants a big balcony, and they simply don't exist in older buildings.
I kept feeling like I was seeing three moments in time in overlay: a Mediterranean village a bit too well-restored to be timeless; the spendthrift escapism of two centuries ago; the democratic tourism of fifty years ago. In five days, I didn't have enough time to discover which one was closest to reality.
Not that I tried too hard. We wandered and I filled up on sunshine for the Parisian winter and planned to spend the time to take a closer look next time.
Because now that I'm back in the gray and the rain in Paris, I'm already thinking of my first trip back.