To Nice residents (Niçois), the Promenade des Anglais is La Prom and it's the centre of Nice life. It's a gym, running track, seaside stroll, pickup strip, kiddie playground, roller derby, cycling route and fashion parade. It's the place to go for a marital discussion, family outing or a contemplative session of sea-staring. On one side, there's the rippling and blue Baie des Anges and on the other side, well, there's a rippling and busy five-lane road. It's relaxation, urban-style.
The Promenade des Anglais was financed and built by the British who began holidaying in Nice around the end of the 18th century. The splendors of Nice were becoming widely known at the time thanks to Scottish writer and poet Tobias Smollett. He arrived in Nice in 1763, stayed two years and published his pungent observations in Travels through France and Italy in 1766.
At first there were only about 80 to 100 families making the journey from London each year and, for the most part, they avoided the malodorous and unsanitary streets of Vieux Nice. After all, they came for their health! Instead they rented houses on the west bank of the Paillon river along the rue de France. A community developed around the marble cross on the rue de France in the neighborhood, Faubourg de la Croix de Marbre. Stores selling products from home sprung up and their signs were in English. The English called it “Newborough”.
The visitors had a problem however. The only place to take a healthy stroll by the sea was Les Terrasses, the elevated promenade in Vieux Nice. Getting there involved trekking to the only bridge over the Paillon river near the Lycée Masséna and then winding their way through the narrow streets of Vieux Nice where beggars pestered them at every turn. Unacceptable.
In 1822 Reverend Lewis Way of the nearby Anglican church launched a charitable drive among his congregants to construct a path along the sea, easily accessible from their neighborhood. The plan not only solved their promenade problem but it gave work to the local population whose poverty they found distressing. Completed in 1824, this dusty 2- meter wide path became the Chemin des Anglais and ran only from the Paillon river to rue Meyerbeer.
Meanwhile the Sardinian King Charles Albert decided to modernize his Savoy cities. In 1832 he created an urban planning commission, the, Consiglio d'Ornato, to supervise the construction of roads, squares and parks in the “new borough”. With a nod to the “distinguished foreigners” living in the Faubourg de la Croix de Marbre, the commission authorized the extension of the Chemin des Anglais to the Les Baumettes neighborhood in west Nice.
By 1844 the new street was complete. Since the “distinguished foreigners” loved a touch of exoticism, the promenade was adorned with its iconic palm trees. In 1856 the Promenade was extended to the Magnan river. The opening of the railroad in 1864, made Nice easily accessible to northern European aristocrats. Some built mansions in the Quartier des Musiciens while others stayed in one of the luxurious new hotels along the Promenade. Gas lights were installed along the Promenade for pleasant evening strolls and a bridge over the Paillon extended the Promenade east. The Promenade became the whirring center of the winter season as carriages came and went, the mansions buzzed with balls and aristocrats showed off their finery on seaside walks.
WWI caused visitors to drift away from Nice and some of the grand hotels were requisitioned as military hospitals. With the end of the war visitors returned but this time it was the summer season that brought them and many were American industrialists. The Promenade was expanded to include a road and extended to Nice Airport. Prominent local architects designed apartment buildings to replace the old villas. The latest project has been to greatly expand the space given to bike paths which now run the entire length of the Promenade from the port to the airport. The opening of tramway line 2 in 2019 has greatly diminished crosstown car traffic and has gone a long way to returning the Promenade to the tranquility that early visitors must have experienced.
Things to See
Cross the road to the northern side and you can appreciate the architecture of the Promenade des Anglais which is a throwback to the days when English aristocrats brought their chic-itude to French Riviera.
Start at the Jardin Albert 1er constructed between 1855 and 1895. Even though the vegetation can penetrate only 70cm into the earth, the garden is lushly green.
Don't miss the Fontaine des Phocéens also known as Fontaine des Tritons. Triton was a Greek god and tritons came to mean mermen to the Greeks. In this composition, the tritons support a basin with jets emerging from conchs and large shells. The exact provenance of these white marble statues is unclear but somehow they wound up in the possession of the powerful Lascaris family, supposedly as the result of an excavation in Greece.
Another impressive sculpture is the Fontaine des Trois Graces by Antoniucci Volti. The three Greek goddesses grouped in the center of the fountain are Euphrosyne, Aglae and Thalia. Despite the classical motif, the work only dates from the late 1960s.
It's very different from the Arc 115.5° by Bernar Venet, an iconic sculpture that represents the curvature of the Baie des Anges.
The Theatre de Verdure is a popular concert space in the summer
Stay near the Prom'!
Heading west, you'll next come to the Palais de la Méditerranée, now a hotel. The original art deco building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as a casino but it closed in 1977. After much thrashing about, the building finally re-opened in 2004 with its magnificent facade intact and restored.
The next hotel to notice is the Hotel Westminster. Built in 1879, it was restored in 1990 but retained its classic facade.
The Villa Massena is now the Massena Museum, reopened after a lengthy restoration. The turn-of-the-century villa was built in the style of Italian villas for Victor Masséna, the grandson of Maréchal Andre Masséna. It now houses a museum devoted to the history of Nice. Don't miss the memorial to the victims of Nice's 2016 terrorist attack outside.
The Hotel Negresco with its pink cupolas is instantly recognizable. Classed as a National Monument, this ornate Belle-Epoque hotel was inaugurated in 1912 and immediately became the most prestigious hotel in Nice. It's worth the price of a drink in the Salon Royal to admire the glasswork of Gustave Eiffel and the chandelier of Baccarat crystal.
For a step-by-step guide to the history and architecture of the Promenade des Anglais see Nice Uncovered: Walks Through the Secret Heart of a Historic City.
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