As New Yorkers were rummaging for umbrellas and trench coats last weekend, the coming summer’s first enthusiasts were sunning themselves on the pebbly beaches of the Côte d’Azur. March afternoons in the 70s are why Nice, France’s sunniest city and the capital of the fabled Riviera, has been popular with hedonists since Roman times — and with Jews for at least 800 years or so.
Marc Chagall, perhaps the most famous Jewish resident in recent memory, adored the area. The painter’s vivid colors, on display at the Chagall museum there, were no doubt influenced by the sun-drenched hues of his adopted city (which must have been a pleasant contrast to the Russian landscape of Chagall’s youth).
Despite its enduring popularity with vacationers and high-profile residents like Chagall and Matisse, Nice is hardly cutting-edge — and for many, that’s a selling point. Its grand beachfront promenade, pink hotels and open-air markets seem impervious to the vagaries of fashion. Ceding urban intensity to larger, more diverse burgs like Marseilles and Lyon, Nice has a sleepy, slightly retro Provençal feel. You can walk almost anywhere you care to go, and on a warm afternoon, you might have the shady alleys all to yourself.
Easily accessed via plane or train, Nice makes an excellent base for exploring the quaint villages and beaches of the Provençal coast, but it’s also a fine place to simply hang out and relax. Set along the seductive curve of the Bay of Angels, crowned by green mountains, the city is at its prettiest in spring, when brilliant flowers burst into bloom in gardens and plazas. Tourists don’t arrive en masse until July, though a well-established community of British retirees (for whom the beachfront Promenade des Anglais is named) ensures chatty English conversation at any time.
Most of them come for the good life, as Matisse and Chagall did in their own golden years. It’s perhaps fitting that the serious culture — the artists’ eponymous museums — are located just out of town, in the picturesque hilltop suburb of Cimiez. The city itself seems made for strolling, gelato-eating, and lounging amid the palm trees.
A short bus ride from central Nice, Cimiez is a fascinating place. Ancient ruins reveal the area’s roots as a strategic Roman settlement; some buildings date back more than 500 years, and the local cemetery is now home to Matisse, Raoul Dufy and other notables.
The Musée Matisse is full of women, many of them what my grandmother would have reprovingly referred to as nachete maidlach — in more proper words, nudes. There are bathers, lots and lots of dancing ladies, nymphs, and several stunning portraits of the artist’s wife. Appropriately, there is an emphasis on Matisse’s later works, but there are also plenty of sketches to illuminate the process behind those iconic loops of dancing girls. If you’re a Matisse fan, you’ll love it — and if you don’t, you haven’t wasted a euro cent: admission is free.
Inside a particularly lovely series of verdant gardens, with views stretching over pastel Nice to the blue Mediterranean, sits the nearby Chagall Museum and Library, which the artist himself inaugurated. Chagall began making regular visits to this coast during the 1920s and ’30s before settling in after the war, moving away from his dark-hued scenes of shtetl life in favor of more universal and especially biblical-based imagery full of glowing jewel tones. These later works form the core of the museum’s collection, and to see them in the sunny, light-filled landscape that inspired the master is a true pleasure. From March 26 through early June, the museum will host a special exhibition of the artist’s rare pastel drawings, offering another side of a painter most associated with saturated color.
Back in town, today’s Nice Jews have a variety of temples and institutions which reflect a community that is as eclectic in origin as it is in observance. The historic centerpiece, however, is the Grande Synagogue of Nice, on Rue Gustave-Deloye — a massive edifice in the neo-Byzantine style, that reflects both the Sephardic Mediterranean and 19th-century architectural vogue. The synagogue has been carefully restored over the years and is now a historic monument; contact the Consistoire (website left) for visiting information.
The synagogue is just one of many grand buildings of that period, descended on these shores in a fin-de-siecle tourism boom. The Hotel Negresco, a pink monument to this age of resorts, is the most visible landmark among the pastel manses that line the posh Rue Paradis.
But Nice’s deeper roots come alive in the shadowy, graffiti-scarred streets of its tangled Old Town. Like Barcelona, Marseilles and Genoa, Nice has been a Mediterranean port city for millennia, with all the seediness, hustle and fishmongering it implies. And like those other towns, Nice has a medieval grid at its heart: winding, cool dark alleys where Camus’ blinding sunlight seems miles away, narrow warrens of history and cobblestoned lore.
To its credit, Nice is finally taking steps to spruce up and revitalize its historic core — the link between the posh fountains and plazas of downtown and the sprawling waterfront promenade. It feels safer now than in years past. But little else has changed: outdoor cafes still serve up salade niçoise and lemon confit, and the Bay of Angels still sparkles, like a glittering diamond necklace of lights, on a soft spring evening. Chagall and Matisse would feel right at home.