The Old Town is the vibrant heart of Nice. With its narrow, shadowy streets, cozy squares, colourful markets, baroque churches and jumble of pastel houses, Vieux Nice looks and feels much as it must have about two centuries ago. The sounds are different though, at least at night when music from the bars and nightclubs fills the air with rhythm. The bustle of tourists and shoppers is replaced by teams of young clubbers prowling the streets for the latest hangout. Especially on summer evenings, the Old Town resembles a vast open-air party.
But during the day, Vieux Nice harbours some remarkable buildings that recall Nice's eventful history.
History of Vieux Nice
The story of Old Nice began when people drifted down from the Colline du Chateau to settle around the Franciscan monastery in the late 13th century. The eastern part of Old Nice closest to Castle Hill was settled first. Naturally these settlers needed protection so the walls of Castle Hill were extended to circle their territory. The 14th-century Pairolière tower near the church of Saint Augustin formed a corner of the fortifications surrounding the town. (The remains of the Pairolière tower and the ancient walls can be visited on a tour of Nice’s Archaeological Crypt).
With the ville haute on top of the hill as an administrative and military center, the ville basse below developed into a commercial center importing wheat from Lombardy and salt from Toulon and Hyères. A 14th century succession struggle left Nice in the hands of the House of Savoy, then based in Chambéry. The town became important both as an outlet to the sea and as a fortress-town.
Once the Turks and Franks besieged the Chateau in 1543, the ville haute was turned into a citadel and the civilian population moved down to Vieux Nice. The town thrived within an expanded fortification system. The old Cathedral on the hill was abandoned and a new one, dedicated to Saint Réparate, was built. Other churches and chapels followed.
The Old Town developed first in the east which is where you’ll find the oldest neighborhood with buildings dating from the 16th century. The center developed primarily in the 17th and 18th centuries which was the great age of baroque architecture. Towards the end of the 18th century the western part of town developed as a stylish district with fine housing and expensive shops.
During the 19th century other neighborhoods developed, primarily to lodge the many guests from northern Europe who came to Nice for their health. The new railway station made Nice an easy town to visit. After Nice voted to become part of France in 1860, wealthy families began building palatial residences in the newly chic neighborhoods of Cimiez and the Quartier des Musiciens. Living in the Old Town lost its cachet.
From the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century Vieux Nice was increasingly filthy and unhygienic. Many buildings didn’t have heat, running water or electricity. Instead of sewage disposal people dumped their waste in the street or collected it in pots to be sold as fertilizer for nearby farms. Because few buildings had kitchens people ate their socca, grilled sardines and soup on the street. It became a neighborhood for poor people, many from France’s former colonies in North Africa. As soon as anyone had the means to do so, they moved out.
In the 1950s and 1960s under mayor Jacques Médecin, the most dilapidated buildings were torn down. Fortunately, the new constructions were designed with an eye to preserving the architectural look of the traditional buildings. Other buildings were structurally reinforced and their facades rejuvenated. Also in the 1960s a new emphasis on preserving France’s heritage freed up funds for local rehabilitation projects.
Once the Old Town was presentable, artists and small boutiques moved in. Tourists soon followed and then the bars and restaurants that catered to them. The boom in vacation rentals encouraged people to buy apartments, rehabilitate them and rent them. Even though the sound of wheeled suitcases clattering down the streets is new for the locals, most have adapted well. And why not? Old Nice has withstood the ravages of time for 700 years without losing its soul and is ready to take on the next millennium.
NOTE that the streets of Vieux Nice have two names on the street signs. Above is the current name in French and below is the original name, not a translation, in Nissart, Nice’s local dialect. Although no longer spoken Nissart is derived from the Occitan language.
Highlights of Old Nice
A visit to Vieux Nice begins in the Cours Saleya, the sensual centre of life in the Old Town. The daily morning market (Tuesday-Sunday 6am-1pm) is thronged. No sooner do the shoppers clear out than the restaurants set up their outdoor tables for lunch. It's a buzzing square all day and into the night when popular clubs open their doors. The Monday morning flea market attracts shoppers looking for sundry antiques and bric-a-brac although bargains are rare.
Old Nice's sunniest spot has undergone a series of changes over the centuries. Until the 13th century what is now Cours Saleya was an extension of the port Saint Lambert. Roughly corresponding to the area now occupied by Castel Plage, Saint Lambert was Nice’s only commercial port. Later the Saint Lambert port became known as the Ponchettes. Fishermen brought back their catch and larger boats deposited salt from the salt beds of Hyéres west of Nice. There was a large fish market and a number of warehouses to store the salt.
In 1250 the first ramparts were built, running along the sea in what is now rue Barillerie, just north of the Cours Saleya. When Duke Emmanuel-Philibert built his palace here (now the Palais de la Prefecture) in the mid-16th-century, other public buildings. sprang up in the vicinity. They needed protection so in 1575 the walls were moved to the south along the sea.
Palais de la Préfecture (not open to the public)
Meanwhile, most of the current Cours Saleya was the Duke's private garden. By the beginning of the 18th century, the Turkish threat had receded and the ramparts were transformed into stores and warehouses for the fishing business as well as little houses for fishermen. In 1776, the tops of the buildings were turned into garden-promenade for the Niçois elite to take a healthy stroll along the sea. Known as the Terrasses or Terrasses des Ponchettes, the garden-promenade was enlarged and expanded over the following centuries. Now it’s just known as the Ponchettes.
In 1861 the mayor, Malausséna, observed that the markets of Saint-François and Rossetti were running out of space. He decided that Cours Saleya had plenty of space and so decreed that the flower market would occupy the west side of the Cours, and produce on the east side, an arrangement that continues today.
In the 20th century the markets and warehouses became art galleries. A group of renowned artists that included Matisse and Pierre Bonnard threw their weight behind a project intending to showcase contemporary Mediterranean art. The galleries—Ponchettes and Marine—attracted the most famous artists of the day including Bonnard and Matisse, Marc Chagall, Jean Cocteau and Raoul Dufy. Unfortunately, the galleries have recently been demolished as part of a plan to create open spaces between the Cours Saleya and the sea.
Where does the unusual name, Saleya, come from anyway? There are a number of theories but no one knows for sure. Maybe the old Nissart word Soleiya which means “sunny”? Or maybe from the word salins which refers to the salt that was the center of the region’s commerce? I prefer the first because the Cours Saleya is indeed sunny.
Chapelle de la Miséricorde
The Chapelle de la Miséricorde (2 pl Pierre-Gautier) on the northern side is a magnificent testament to the prestige of the Cours Saleya. Built in 1740, it's considered a masterpiece of baroque architecture and has been named a national monument. The interior is a dazzling display of frescoes and gilt yet the relatively small size gives it an aura of intimacy.
The story of the chapel begins with the Order of Theatines who built a convent here in 1671. In the early 18th century they acquired more land and decided to expand. They hired Bernardo Vittone, a favored architect in Savoy, to somehow combine the convent and a new chapel. In an ingenious sleight of hand, he managed to make it look as though the convent and chapel are a single building.
Look closely at the front to see that the monks cells are above the central oculus (circular window). On the side, the oculi also separate the chapel from the living quarters but here the windows are angled to let light into the nave. The Theatines were chased out during the Revolution soon after the interior decor was finished in 1786. The building then became a warehouse, library and theater before the Black Penitents bought it in 1828. The Penitents immediately embarked upon a lavish restoration project but kept the original oval floor plan of the Saint Gaëtan chapel.
Right in front is another institution Chez Theresa, and her famous socca. Sometime the last century, a certain Theresa, of Italian origin, brought her mobile oven to the Cours Saleya and introduced Nice to socca. Made from chick pea flour, water, olive oil and salt, the mixture is poured onto a round, flat plate and cooked at high heat. The result is a flat, thin pancake that is cut up into triangles, sprinkled with black pepper and eaten warm. Although there have been three “Theresas”, the tradition continues every market day (Tuesday-Sunday mornings). Also on sale are other Nice specialties such as pissaladière (onion pie), tourte de blette (swiss chard tart), and pan bagnat (tuna, egg and vegetable sandwich).
At the eastern end of Cours Saleya is the Palais Caïs de Pierlas where the painter Henri Matisse lived and worked from 1921 to 1938. He rented an apartment on the third floor overlooking Cours Saleya and then moved up to a nine-room apartment on the fourth floor where he had a view of the market and the sea. Here he painted the Odalisque Tatouée, La Robe Tilleul, and the Grand Nu Couché.
The Palais Caïs Pierlas is also one of the oldest buildings in Nice. Built in 1693 for the Ribotti family, the building was used as a school from 1729 when the Jesuit college was closed. The stuccoes over the 2nd floor represent the four liberal arts: grammar, drawing, architecture and music. The Caïs de Pierlas family bought the building in 1782.
Chapelle de l'Annonciation (Saint Rita)
Chapelle de l'Annonciation, popularly known as Saint Rita's church is Vieux Nice’s most beloved and delightfully intimate churches. Walking into the sparkling interior is like finding yourself inside a jewelry box. Saint Rita is a 15th-century saint who is known as the patron saint of lost and impossible causes.
It was the Benedictine order that first established a chapel here around the 10th century, making Saint Rita the oldest religious site in Nice. It became a parish in 1493 and in 1604 the Carmelites took over. They extended the chapel and built a friary around it. It was completed by the end of the 17th century at the height of the baroque period. The bell tower topped with a Rococo dome was built in 1740. The Carmelites were chased out in a fit of Revolutionary fervor in 1793 and the church became a salt warehouse. By 1806 it was just a simple chapel.
After a fire in 1834 ravaged the old building, the church was renovated and a new facade created. As the original altar painting went up in smoke, the Russian painter Chevelkine contributed L'Annonciation to the apse and the church acquired that name. The church was entrusted to the Oblate order who are still in charge.
In 1934, Father Andrea Bianco, then rector of the church, installed a statue of Saint Rita in the first side altar after the entrance. She was an immediate hit among the locals especially during the dark years of WWII when normal life seemed like a lost cause. The church was classified a historic monument in 1947.
The interior has a simple floor plan but the baroque styling gives an impression of incredible richness. The artistic highlight is the Chapel of the Madonna of Mount Carmel with the white marble statue of the Virgin and Child carved around 1771 by the Genoese sculptor, Giovanni Andrea Ansaldo. The Madonna of Carmel protects the Carmelites who founded the church.
Eglise du Gesù
Eglise Saint-Jacques-Le-Majeur, popularly known as the Eglise du Gesù is a spectacular example of baroque architecture. There were two successive churches on this site, both built by the Jesuits. The first church, built in 1612, proved to be too small. Construction of the current church began in 1642 and finished in 1696.When the Jesuits were expelled in 1773, it became a parish church dedicated to Saint James the Great (Saint Jacques Le Majeur).
The original facade was unadorned but in 1825 it was recreated in fashionable baroque style. Notice the elegant Serlian window in the center covered with a semi-circular arch. On either side are niches with two allegorical figures: Hope with an anchor on the left and Faith with a cross on the right. The bell tower (visible from rue de la Croix) features exposed brick in Piedmontese style. The roof is shaped as a policeman’s hat and covered with glazed tiles in Genoese style.
Eglise du Gesù was the first baroque church in Nice, vaguely modeled after the Church of the Gesù in Rome. The layout is simple and rectangular, following the precepts of the Catholic Counter-Reformation which demanded an unobstructed layout that enabled the priest to be seen and heard. Nothing about the rest of the church is simple though. The Church favored a highly ornate style to impress congregations with the power and majesty of the Church. Angels and cherubs are everywhere, about 160 on the frieze alone, plus dozens more on the arches and around the windows. The idea was to fuse heaven and earth in one glorious profusion of color and movement. Notice that there's a slight elevation from the front door to the choir. The visitor should feel as though they are “climbing” towards God.
A handy paper is available inside with detailed descriptions of the chapels and artwork.(open daily for visits except Sunday)
Cathédrale Sainte Réparate
Stay in Old Nice
Cathedral Saint Reparata is the largest sacral building in Nice and the center of the city's religious life. If it's an important wedding or funeral, a major religious holiday or commemorative event, it's bound to happen here. After the 2016 terrorist attack in Nice, the remembrance service was held here.
The story of the church begins with Reparata, a 15-year-old Palestinian virgin martyred in 250AD. First they tried to burn her alive but a miraculous rain doused the flames. Then they made her drink boiling pitch but she still refused to renounce her faith. At that point she was decapitated. A dove appeared to accompany her soul to the afterlife. According to legend, Nice fishermen soon noticed a wooden ship in the bay piloted by a dove and accompanied by angels. Inside was a young girl wrapped in a white shroud and lying on a bed of flowers. The fishermen hauled the boat to shore and placed the body under a tree. Some say the event gave the bay its name, Baie des Anges (Angel Bay).
In the 11th century a chapel was built for the saint. It became a church in 1455 as the cult of Saint Reparata was growing throughout Europe. In the late 16th century it became a cathedral and eventually Saint Reparata became the patron saint of Nice. When the population moved down to the ville basse in the 16th century it was apparent that a new cathedral would be necessary to accommodate a growing population.
Plans for a larger cathedral were entrusted in 1649 to architect, Jean Andre Guibert and it was consecrated in 1699. The bell-tower arose in 1757, a new facade was built in 1830 and lateral aisles were extended in 1899.
On the facade is a statue of Saint Reparata, surrounded by the other venerated saints in Nice: Syagre, Bassus, Pontius and Valérien. The same saints adorn the choir. Within the altar are relics of the five saints. Why five saints? Since the Middle Ages local people were beset by serial catastrophes: plague, cholera, typhus, floods, famine, war, even a strange butterfly infestation (1623). It was more efficient to pray to a bunch of saints at once!
The high altar built in 1685, features a central painting representing the Glory of Saint Reparata. Under her left arm is a view of the Colline du Chateau. On the right, is an anonymous painting of Saint Pontius dating from around 1655 which displays (next to his left hand) a view of the Paillon valley, the Cimiez monastery and the Saint Pons abbey. The lateral chapels are sumptuously decorated, largely paid for by rich Niçois families and businesses. Each chapel has a small explanatory sign in multiple languages.
On the left aisle is the Chapel of Saint Reparata with graphic depictions of her martyrdom. Don't miss the ornate Chapel of Saint Rosalie and the Virgin also on the left aisle. It was built in 1699 to venerate Saint Rosalie of Palermo who protects against the plague. Each year on October 8 Saint Reparata’s feast day is celebrated with processions and a special mass.
(open 9am-noon and 2-6pm Tuesday to Sunday; 2-6pm Monday)
Palais Lascaris is an outstanding example of a Genoese baroque palace. Built as a residence for Jean-Paul Lascaris in the middle of the 17th century, it remained the property of the powerful Lascaris-Vintimille family until 1792 when they fled to escape Revolutionary forces.
Much of the lavish interior decor dates from a restoration in the 1960s. The City of Nice purchased the property in 1942, restored it and turned the palace into a museum. In addition to the frescoes, stuccoes, paintings and sculpture, the Lascaris Palace also displays an important collection of ancient musical instruments. Just a (free) glimpse of the entrance hall with its colorful ceiling frescoes, arches and sculpture whets the appetite to see more.
Climb the wide, balustraded staircase and prepare to travel back to the 18th century. In this world the music is plucked out on beautifully carved wooden instruments. Local notables stare from elaborately framed paintings. Scenes from the Bible or Greek mythology adorn walls and ceilings trimmed with gilt. On the first floor, one room is devoted to musical instruments such as a serinette, a spinet, violins, harps, mandolins and a lyre. The opposite room displays portraits of the family and local royalty. Consistent with Genoese style, the second floor is the piano nobile, which contains the opulent residential and reception rooms. Despite the Flemish tapestries, delicate instruments and classical art, the compact rooms with soft lighting and high ceilings create a warm, intimate atmosphere. It's as though the architect was balancing the need for a soft, relaxing space with the desire to show off the family's wealth.
It takes about an hour maximum to visit the palace and there are detailed explanations in English of each room.
(open 10am-6pm Wednesday to Monday)
Place Saint François
Place Saint-François is one of Nice's most historic squares. In 1251 the Franciscans settled here, building a convent and a church. A community developed around the Franciscan settlement as people descended from the Colline du Chateau (Castle Hill) after the siege of 1543. In 1574 the Palais Communal was constructed to house the Hôtel de Ville (town hall). It lasted until 1792 when the French revolutionaries swept through and pillaged it.
The stately building later served various municipal purposes including as a barracks, cinema and ice house before it became the headquarters of the CGT, a powerful labor union. In 1938 fish mongers set up their stalls and the square became known for its fish market.
The buildings were left to crumble until a massive renovation started around 2009. In rehabilitating and excavating the buildings archaeologists discovered arches, caves and even the remains of an early 20th-century cinema. The labor union was evicted and parking was prohibited but the fish market remains. When the renovations are finished the old buildings will house exhibition spaces and a museum of Old Nice. The fountain at the center is Aux Dauphins, created in 1938 by Nice sculptor Francois Aragon.
For a step-by-step walking tour with maps and secret sights, see my e-book Nice Uncovered: Walks Through the Secret Heart of a Historic City. Find out more
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