Au Soleil: Contemporary continental elan on the Cote d'Azur

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Hotel Notre Dame is a pleasant one star hotel at 22 Rue de Russie in Nice overlooking a local market square and a fine town church. Even pleasanter is the longstanding, and ever-popular, local cafe Au Soleil built into the base of it.

Go for the fulsome cous-cous speciality dish in the evenings (breakfast/lunch menus served through the day), the easy service of the couple who've run the place for decades, and most especially go for the early 60s interior with its impressive continental finishes: moulded moderne ceilings, space-age wall lights, bright door signs...

Au Soleil is a little like the Nice version of New Piccadilly; a stalwart local landmark set on the edges of the tourist district. Infact, being sited just south of the train station, most locals would probably regard Au Soleil as being in a no-go area. But to British eyes the peeling shopfronts, endless exotica Vietnamese restaurants, 30s apartment blocks and clustered bars all around* seem positively gentrified.

A far cry from the PC admonitions of the Rough Guides which for years have castigated Nice for its old-money ambience and alliances: 'the capital of the Riviera has hardly evolved from the eighteenth-century Russian and English aristocrats who first built their mansions here.' Oh, there aren't enough KFCs, McDonalds, Benjys, All Bar Ones? Good!

Parts of the city may well be millionaire ghettos, but much of it remains not only affordable for visitors but also infinitely fascinating and accessible. The streets haven't yet been cloned to death by the multinationals, and for roving Moribundians there's still a wealth of detail and ambience to enjoy - both within the town and on any number of short treks up and down the coast (trips to Eze, Vence and Antibes Old Town are highly recommended.)

The Rough Guide charge sheet: In the 80s and early 90s politics in Nice was marred by corruption: the right-wing mayor Jacques Médécin was twice found guilty of income tax evasion during a 24-year mayorship. In 1990 he fled to Uruguay. He was finally extradited and jailed. (From his prison cell, Médecin twinned Nice with Cape Town!)

For sure, underneath the heavy-duty glamour, the city retains pockets of supreme decadence
- think LA Confidential goes Cote D'Azur. The current mayor Jacques Peyrat is formerly a member of the Front National. His nemesis, chief prosecutor Eric de Montgolfier, alleged that some of the city's judiciary were in the pay of Freemasons; in neighbouring Hyères, Yann Piat of the French National Assembly was assassinated by local Mafia...

Still n' all, the medieval rabbit warren of Nice's old town, with its endless Italianate facades and handsome beachfront mansions, remains a wonder to behold - as if Portmeirion had somehow reproduced itself a hundred times over, with infinitely better weather.

Nice's real sin is to be too pleasant, too untouched, too first world... trop belle pour toi!

It's lightyears away from the massing social psoriasis of UK plc, and simply not 'urban' or 'edgy' enough for Hoxtontots who believe the wastes of Hackney & Dalston are thrilling Ballardian futurescapes. (Ballard, of course, regularly holidays at Juan-les-Pins - right on the Cote.)

Nice isn't rock n' roll (though all of U2 appear to have moved in en masse.) It is however one of the best cities left in Europe for the Moribundian flâneur: masses of left-alone stores (and beautifully dated storefronts); imposing Deco blocks everywhere; astounding Victorian suburbs; endless narrow backstreets filled with architectural marvels; opera houses; carousels; flea-pits; monasteries; old-mens' bars; mysterious arcades...

All of human life is here - sans skinny lattes!
Go now, before the first Belle Epoque Star****s springs up.


During the 19th century Nice took off as a beach resort, and was one of the first cities in Europe to develop a purely tourist-based economy. (The seaside destination was particularly popular with the English aristocracy, who followed Queen Victoria's example of wintering in the mild climate.)

Between 1860 and 1911 it was the fastest-growing city in Europe as new rail links and roads opened it up to the rest of the continent. Then the city received an exotic facelift: luxuriant palms, wattles and eucalypti imported from Australia, and fantastical belle époque buildings...

After Paris, Nice features the most important Belle Epoque architectural heritage in France. During the Belle Epoque, a constant stream of sovereigns and heads of state, gave Nice its title of Winter Capital of Europe.

As the elegant and the idle flocked to Nice's high society an audacious architectural programme was begun. Trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the Belle-Epoque architects, S.M. Biasini, Charles Garnier, Charles Dalmas and Edouard Niermans mixed pastiche and opulence in equal measure: mini Arabian nights palaces; medieval and neogothic chateaux; Ukranian isbahs; domes with yellow, black, green or pink snake scales; universes of pottery and frescoes...

Despite the demolition of a number of establishments - Hôtel Ruhl (by Charles Dalmas) and Casino de la Jetée - Nice has preserved a large part of its Belle Epoque architectural capital. L'Hôtel Négresco (37 Promenade des Anglais) enraptured guests at its official opening with an oval-shaped salon covered by a glass roof and decorated by an immense rug. L'Excelsior Régina (71 boulevard Régina, Cimiez), built by the financier Henri Germain for the Crédit Lyonnais, was converted into apartments at the end of the 30s with Henri Matisse a resident. Le château du Mont-Boron (176, boulevard Carnot) is a synthesis of neo-gothic and hindu palace; an exotic folly whose pink façade is crowned by a crenelated tower.

The first guidebook to the region was published in 1887 by a lawyer-cum-aspiring poet who gave it its name: the Côte d'Azur ('Azure Coast'). Cézanne and Van Gogh visited, attracted by the scenery and the light an in the 1920s the region became a mecca for artists and writers (Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann).

- Old Nice: Picture Special
- More Nice: Picture Special



* One cafe/bar in particular is a must see. The Caves di Romagnan (22 rue d'Angleterre) is an amazing scuffed little dive, some twenty foot square, with sparse 50s decor and a wall of sagging bookcases laden with tomes, bottles and papers. As the club website makes crystal clear, Caves di Romagnan: "is happy to accommodate you in one of the oldest cellars niçoises where you will be able, not only siroter between friends a small plonk of behind the faggots, in a cosmopolitan environment and good child, but also: to travel in the self-managed library (Géo, data base, Novel, Re-examined...) To admire the exposures of local artists... And especially, every saturday evening, of eight to midnight, descent of the street d'Angleterre, a halation of light diffuses d'une window and animates l'obscurity. A door ­ always open ­ let pass the swing d'un concert of Jazz live. C'est Saturday evening, the Romagnan cellar is animated. All the amateurs and aficionados of the jazz are there, faithful audience d'un not very common place. This unpleasant small bar has a noble soul... precision and love l'esprit which precedes in this place... simplicity, force, passion of l'humain..." (!!!) Beats the hell out of a Jools Holland hootenanny any day of the week, that's for sure.










Caves di Romagnan pix: Pierre-Hugues Polacci


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