Really Nice: Looking for the Soul of the French Riviera

Special to the Washington Post

It was after dark by the train station in Nice and I put the last touches on my fluorescent yellow wig, which was stuffed with a few thousand dollars' worth of fake euros. The occasion was the opening night of the Carnaval de Nice, the city's biggest annual event and a two-week riot of the absurd à la Nicoise. My wife and I were chaperons for the 25 children in our son's second-grade class attending the Carnaval, whose theme was "Euroland," as in the new European currency. Keeping order among costumed and face-painted 7-year-olds armed with confetti and cans of Silly String is, of course, a joke. But I was eager to participate in this night because of my longtime fascination with Nice, the most intriguing and elusive city I know.

Although for nearly a year we have lived only a half-hour away, here was a chance to participate in a Nicoise tradition with roots in the 13th century. This night, and the two subsequent weeks of parades and floats, would not only provide lasting memories but would surely give Parisians proof again that "Nice n'est pas à nous" ("Nice is not ours").

Our group made several failed efforts to hold hands and dance a farandole through the city's main commercial district -- part of a long, noisy procession of about 2,000 children and musicians led by the carnival king astride a multicolored chicken. As we arrived at our destination, Place Massena, loudspeakers blared cheesy techno fanfare.

Massena is Nice's grandest place, and for Carnaval, the plaza was lit up like Times Square, with countless colored lights forming billboard tableaux in the euro theme. The purpose was not to promote, but to mock. The caricatures in lights satirized all of Eurodom, depicting a Shark of Finance, a Euro Queen riding a pig and several money-worshiping devils.

The most satirical display was of a banker, pants hanging around his ankles and bent over a table, gorging on francs. At the same time, euro bills dropped out his bared butt. In a toilet below, tiny people packed like sardines grabbed for the newly minted money.

My reflections on the symbolism was interrupted when I suddenly felt a tug on my wig. I knew instantly what was happening: My wig was being mugged! I twisted around to grab the culprit. But instead of catching a little delinquent in the act, I came face to face with a woman of more than 70 years stuffing the notes into her pocket.

She flashed a crooked smile. And then seeing me guarding my "hair," she started laughing. Her husband joined in, and then so did I. This was how the evening ended. True farce. Welcome to Nice.

As the principal city of the Cote d'Azur, Nice is among the world's most visited cities. But in recent years, it has become a stopping point rather than a destination for smart-set American travelers headed for chic-er ports on the Riviera or more pastoral corners of Provence.

But Nice remains one of the most interesting places in the south of France, partly because it refuses to be merely chic. Nice has a history and a culture like no other. Bordered by Provence to the west, the Alps to the north and Italy about 20 miles to the east, Nice is culturally like Mesclun, its salad mix of as many as 11 types of wild greens bathed in olive oil. It is as much Italian as French, but decidedly Nicoise, with its own traditions, cuisine and language.

In old Nice, the street signs are written in French and Nissart, a distinct tongue that has survived through the past two generations, partly as a code through which locals could keep secrets from their occupiers -- including the French.

For most of its history, Nice has been a trophy to waves of conquerors, starting with the Greeks and Romans and ending with the Italian House of Savoy, before Nice was annexed to France in 1860. After that came Queen Victoria and British aristocrats, who flocked here for the mild winters and built a colony that remains in much of the modern city. Then came the artists like Matisse, who fell in love with the light, and Isadora Duncan, who died in front of the Negresco Hotel when her scarf caught in the wheel of her Bugatti.

Postwar Nice was influenced by one of the city's most corrupt politicians, who also happened to be one of the city's most respected culinary authorities. Jacques Medecin, the mayor for 24 years, died in 1998 after fleeing to Uruguay under prosecution for corruption. But his 278-page culinary treatise, "La Bonne Cuisine du Comte de Nice," still sells here as a Bible on the subject.

To understand the locals and their carnivalesque humor, one needs to know the story of the city's heroine, Catherine Segurane. While other French towns have fair virgins, Nice has Segurane, a laundress who frightened away an invading Turkish army in 1543 by mounting a ladder and showing her large bare backside. Such is the fate of Nice: to have the world's most celebrated case of mooning.

In spite of the 20th-century overdevelopment and excess that overwhelms the Cote d'Azur, to me there is still no more beautiful sight than arriving in Nice from the west. By air, you make your descent over the mountains, white with snow for most of the year, and then bank over the Mediterranean. Between the snowcaps and the turquoise sea sits Nice.

By car, you arrive along the Promenade des Anglais, with a median of palm trees that stretches for miles around Nice's spectacular Baie des Anges. The promenade includes a pedestrian boardwalk built above the rocky Mediterranean beach, which in summer is a carpet of sunbathers.

On the other side of the boulevard is a band of white low-rise apartments and hotels, whose styles span from ornate belle epoque to Miami-inspired 1950s. All, however, are dwarfed by the palatial, domed Negresco, which looks as if it had been built by pastry chefs.

The heart of the city is old Nice, which begins in Place Massena, with its vivid Mediterranean colors found nowhere else in France. Massena's arcaded buildings are painted Sardinian red, a vestige of its Italian past, with peeling, pistachio-colored shutters.

I like to start a day in Nice under the arcades of the plaza, sipping strong coffee at the Vogade. Founded in 1862 by the legendary master chef Escoffier, the Vogade is a piece of Nice history. Considerably smaller than it was in its heyday, the Vogade remains an excellent patisserie and chocolatier. In summer, it makes its own ice cream in the basement.

To explore old Nice, go on foot. Crossing the grand gardens and fountains of Massena, simply follow the trail of colors of the buildings -- deep reds, faded rose, melon, lemon yellow and ochre.

Walking up Rue St. Francois de Paule, past the opera house, enter the Cours Saleya, the wide pedestrian market flanked by dozens of sidewalk cafes and restaurants just a block from the sea. Six mornings a week, the Cours Saleya comes alive with stalls of flowers, herbs and fresh produce and vivid stands of marzipan and lurid mountains of olives. Mondays are antique market days, when the Cours is filled with acres of goods -- from fine silver and china to kitsch, from religious icons to 1920s erotica.

From the Cours Saleya, turn away from the sea and into the maze of narrow pedestrian streets into old Nice. In the crooked, shadowed lanes is a quirky collection of baroque churches and old chateaus, both decorated by Italian painters.

One of my favorite streets is Rue Droite, which you sort of stumble onto from the far end of the Cours Saleya. (So tangled are the streets that someone thought to name it Straight Street, even though it isn't.) On Rue Droite, you can find in proximity old Nice's most elaborately decorated baroque church, Eglise du Gesu, as well as its best preserved palace, the 17th-century Palais Lascaris, with its ornate vaulted staircase and frescoes.

Rue Droite also has some interesting mosaic studios and dependable and inexpensive Nicoise bistros, such as Acchiardo and Restaurant du Gesu, in the shadows of the old church.

By day, the predominant age group in old Nice is over 60; by night it's under 30. Nice has lots of bars, late-night restaurants and cafes. One institution is Bar/Theatredes Oiseaux, which has jazz or ethnic music most nights. The bar gets its name from the old proprietor, who let birds fly freely throughout the place. After she left, the birds flew away, but the eccentric spirit remains.

I love foie gras and champagne and all of the courses of an elaborately prepared French meal. But I would trade a lifetime of haute cuisine for pissaladiere (a Nicoise pizza of caramelized onions, anchovies and olives) and a supply of Cote de Provence wine.

A good spot to get initiated in the local cuisine is Bar Chez Rene on Rue Paroliere at the far end of the old town. You walk up to a counter and basically point at the pizzas or socca (chickpea flour crepe) or the plates of grilled sardines, farcies (stuffed vegetables) or fried zucchini blossoms. Then, sit down at a wooden table, order a carafe and watch the daily parade.

Nicoise cooking, the product of resourceful chefs who learned to deal with meager harvests, is dominated by the one food source that is plentiful -- olives and olive oil.

One recent lunchtime, I decided to face the one Nicois dish I had avoided -- and perhaps the most Nicois plate of all. I must have been warned a dozen times about stockfish, a local preparation of dried cod that takes one full week of preparation followed by hours of cooking time. The thing about stockfish is that its smell is so strong -- so stinky -- that one native I know swears he has to hold his nose when he eats it.

For my first run at stockfish, I carefully selected the venue: La Merenda, a tiny bistro presided over by Dominique Le Stanc, former chef at the Negresco. La Merenda seats exactly 25 people on stools around wooden tables. Written on the back of the chalkboard menu are the restaurant's policies: No phone (you have to make your reservations in person). No checks. No credit cards. And (unheard of in this part of the world) no smoking.

When I said authoritatively, "I will have stockfish," the otherwise harried waiter paused to look up from his pad.

"Do you know stockfish?" he asked in French.

"Yes," I said.

"Have you had it before?"

"No."

"First," he answered, "I will bring you a taste and then you can tell me if you want stockfish."

He returned minutes later with a saucer filled with a red, tomato-based stew with chunks of fish and olives. I smelled it. It was terrible. If fish wore socks, this is what they would smell like.

The people at the adjoining tables all looked at me as I raised a spoon to my lips. I tasted it. It was sublime. I smiled. The process was as complicated as getting a French visa, but I got my stockfish.

Harder to find is salad Nicoise. I had been counseled by many a food lover that the real salad Nicoise no longer exists, even in Nice. The authentic Nicoise dish is made from a base of raw baby artichoke hearts or raw broad beans. Medecin's recipe calls for anchovies, green peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, garlic, basil, hard-boiled eggs, local black olives and olive oil. Contrary to what most Anglophile guidebooks or cookbooks tell you, it never includes string beans, potatoes, lettuce or the Chicken of the Sea found in the version most of us know.

"The restaurants and bars all list the salad Nicoise," the Nice gastronomic critic Jacques Gantie complained to me, "but it's the same salad you can find in New York!"

Still, I was determined that I would be served a real salad Nicoise.

First, I went to La Table Alziari, a small bistro run by a scion of Nice's pre-eminent olive oil family. Andre Alziari confided that the reason restaurants stopped making the salad was the time involved in peeling and slicing raw artichokes. "And then you get customers who push them to the side of the plate and eat the tomatoes!"

In old Nice, where the obvious is never apparent, I found an almost true salad Nicoise masquerading under another name. La Petite Maison, on the Cours Saleya, is a white-tablecloth restaurant where politicians and businessmen go to make deals and schmooze over signature preparations of sea bass. On the menu is "salade de Nice."

I stopped by for lunch to investigate and was not disappointed: The salad may take a few liberties, such as the addition of grilled yellow peppers and wild chicory along with a dash of vinegar, but its base is pure raw purple slices of artichoke hearts.

The experience converted me: I will never again stomach a faux salad Nicoise.

Something is always happening in Nice, whether it is a gourd festival in April, a fisherman's festival in June, a grape harvesting festival in September or the summertime outdoor jazz festival in Cimiez, the hill district overlooking the city.

Cimiez, one of Nice's most opulent neighborhoods, is also home to the Matisse museum, housed in a 17th-century villa overlooking ruins of Roman baths and an arena, as well as a Franciscan monastery with a church and rose garden. (Both Matisse and Raoul Dufy are buried in their own garden plots here.)

Further inland, off Route de Grenoble, is France's only in-town wine growing region, Bellet, where more than a dozen vintners spread throughout the hills make some excellent wines in small quantities.

A Bellet wine tour is a must for wine buffs, who should be prepared for ringing doorbells and cajoling some of the smaller producers to open their doors. Production is so small and so much of it is bought up by restaurants or German exporters that some vintners are not motivated about doing more business. A car is necessary, and you must drive winding two-way roads, some of which can barely fit one Renault.

Recently, after a stressful morning that involved home repairs and our disappearing work crew, my wife and I headed for the hills of Bellet. At first, our frustration was compounded by the fact that we arrived just before lunch and the vineyards we visited were, of course, closed. Finally, at 12:30, we found one tiny producer at home who took us to his cellar for a tasting. He agreed to sell us two bottles of his highly regarded red of recent vintage. "That's all I have left," he said, pointing to a stack of about 20 cases. Then he made us promise not tell anyone he had sold us the wine.

Things were starting to look brighter. On his suggestion, we stopped for lunch on the hillside terrace at Chez Simon, a local favorite. It was the first Friday afternoon in spring: The sun was shining, fruit trees were in bloom and frogs were beginning to make noise from their creek beds.

When the salad Nicoise arrived, it was as close as you'll find to the genuine article -- baby artichoke hearts and all. I asked them to hold off on the normal dosage of vinegar, and instead they brought the salad with a tin of Alziari olive oil on the side. The meal was finished with small filets of mullet and eggplant caviar, and by the time our coffee arrived, we were ready to have our bellies stroked like sated cats.

We made one more stop, for a tasting at the Chateau Cremat, which stores its wines in a cellar that was once a Roman prison and in the 1920s was the stomping ground of Coco Chanel (who locals say took her famous logo from the crest of the chateau). We loaded our trunk with a case of red, then lazily pointed our wheels downhill toward town. Like the rest of Nice, we were in no particular hurry.