Nice's Unique History and Culture
Like just about every important settlement along the this coast, Nice was a Greek settlement (Nikaia) and then a Roman town (Cemenelum) before the usual medieval period of raids, wars and plagues. But, unlike its neighbors, who were regularly forced to fight or flee to their walled towns and mountain strongholds, Nice enjoyed nearly 500 years of relative stability as part of the Kingdom of Savoy.
In 1388, after behind-the-scenes political maneuvering by the Count of Savoy and treason against the Counts of Provence by the city’s governor, Jean Grimaldi (yes, that Monaco family), the city pretty much gave itself to the Savoyards. Except for two relatively short periods (when it belonged to Louis XIV and when it briefly joined the first French Republic), Nice was ruled by Savoy, an Italian kingdom, until 1860, when the people voted to join France. Perhaps this is why so much of the city’s culture has such distinctive Niçois character, most visible to visitors in language and foods.
Everyone who visits Nice falls in love with the palm-shaded walks along the eight-km/five-mile sea front on the Baie des Anges, with Antibes in the distance. In the Mont Boron Forestry Park (created in 1866 with the planting of 142 acres of Aleppo pines) visitors climb miles of marked paths in search of rare flowers (wild orchids, lentiscus, miniature carnations) or to savor the views of Saint Jean Cap Ferrat. Or they are drawn to the exquisite daily flower market on the Cours Saleya. Nice flirts with tourists and knowing that it is a well-practiced flirtation doesn’t diminish its charm in the least.
The Niçois have catered to a steady stream of visitors for nearly 150 years. Much of what is attractive and alluring about Nice today is a result of the waves of visitors who have come here and shaped their surroundings for their own pleasure.
From the Victorian period onward, Nice attracted wealthy foreign tourists. English aristocrats came first, building their gingerbread mansions in the Cimiez quarter and their sparkling Belle Époque hotels along the seafront named in their honor – The Promenade des Anglais.
American millionaires came later and then Czarist Russians. After the Russian Revolution, many came back to establish a Russian community and to build their elaborate mansions around the city’s remarkable Russian Orthodox Church.
Countless important artists came here to work and some, like Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse, stayed – Matisse remaining for the rest of his life.
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