Lazing on sun lounger on Nice’s stoney beach in the late afternoon, plane after plane swoop over the wide bay to land at the oceanside airport. It comes as no surprise to learn that this is the second most popular tourist destination in France. Nice may be the runner up to Paris, but there’s much greater likelihood of warm sunny weather than its northerly counterpart.
Today’s tourists follow a long tradition. Nice and the Côte d’Azur have been destinations since the 18th century, when wealthy European visitors from less sunny climes first began to flock here. The attractions of the area are obvious: glorious Mediterranean weather, great food, a storied history dating back to the Ancient Greeks, and a unique cultural fusion of French and Italian influences.
Nice got its name from the first Greek colonists who settled here in 350BC. They named this divine spot Nikaia, after Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. The Romans followed the Greeks and Nice flourished. There is still some physical evidence of the Greeks but, as it was wherever they went, the Romans have left behind monumental ruins that prove how important Nice was to them.
A Roman influence, of sorts, continued in the centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire. By the 10th century, Nice was controlled by the Counts of Provence, before coming under the control of the Counts of Savoy in 1388. Despite many French invasions and occupations, including one time in 1848 where an invading French force was chased away by the local population, Savoy remained more Italian than French.
Ironically it was the Italian desire for unification and independence from the Austrian Empire that resulted in Nice and other parts of Savoy being handed to France in 1860, a year before Italy itself was born. This was the price the new country paid for French support in the war for independence. The political deal was confirmed by a rigged vote with a suspicious 99.8% vote in favour of France.
In these murky circumstances, Nice became French. The British Foreign Secretary, Lord John Russell, wrote that, “Voting in Savoy and Nice a farce … we are neither entertained or edified”. The British didn’t want French expansion, not that it stopped Queen Victoria from holidaying here. More damning, annexation was opposed by one of Níce’s most famous sons, Italian independence hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Born in Nice in 1807, at a time when under French control, Garibaldi never accepted that Nice became French. He actively sought to have it returned to Italy for the rest of his life. That seems to have been forgiven, and there’s a grand statue of him standing in the appropriately named Place Garibaldi. It’s just one example of the uncomfortable border setting that recurs throughout European history.
So Nice was never actually part of Italy, but this shared heritage has bequeathed it a unique culture infused with Italian influences. The ochre-hued buildings of its old town feel more Italian than French, and the now almost extinct local dialect, Niçard, is neither French or Italian. The Niçoise language is given its greatest expression in the song, Nissa la Bella, the unofficial anthem of the city with an Italian twang.
We spent part of our last day in Nice wandering the port area, which today is home to luxury yachts of all nations, but still has a small flotilla of colourful fishing boats. The elegant district behind the harbour is filled with bars and restaurants, but we ate lunch overlooking the harbour before wandering back around the Pointe de Rauba-Capeu for a final afternoon on the beach.