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Nice, the Original Mediterranean Resort

Nice, France

Nice, on the French Riviera, was popular during the belle époche (the "beautiful ages" of the late 1800s and early 1900s), and just as popular today for its beach scene, scenic promenade, old town, fine cuisine, and elegant flair.

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In the 19th century aristocrats from London to Moscow flocked to France’s sunny Cote d’Azur, or “blue coast.” Much loved for its blue seas and blue skies, this was the place for Northern Europeans to socialize, gamble, and escape their dreary weather.

Whether you’re rich or not, Nice, with its eternally entertaining seafront promenade and fine museums, is the enjoyable big-city highlight of the Riviera. In its traffic-free old city, Italian and French flavors mix to create a spicy Mediterranean dressing. Nice may be nice, but it’s hot and jammed in July and August. We’re here in early June…beating the serious heat and crowds.

The broad Promenade des Anglais (literally the "walkway of the English") was paved in marble for blue-blooded 19th century English tourists who wanted a safe place to stroll and admire the view without getting their shoes dirty or smelling that fishy gravel. Today it’s a fun people’s scene with a bike and roller blade path that leads all the way to the airport.

The beach, while pebbly, is popular. Whether you’re looking for an adrenalin rush or just working on your suntan, this beach has it all. Tan lines can be hard to find, as Europeans are relaxed about topless sunbathing. While major stretches of the beach are public, much of it is private — where you pay to rent a spot, complete with mattress, lounge chair, and umbrella.

For a particularly scenic lunch, you can eat on the beach. I’m having a salade niçoise — the hearty local standard with anchovies, tuna, hard-boiled eggs and tasty little niçoise olives.

Graceful buildings from the turn of the last century lead in from the beach — reminders of the belle époque. Literally the “beautiful age,” when the world seemed to revolve around the upper class and indulgence with abandon was a lifestyle. Nice's grand Opera House illustrates the beautiful extravagance of this era. Imagine this opulent jewel buried deep in the old town of Nice way back then. With Europe’s elite wintering here, the rough-edged town needed some high-class entertainment.

A prime example of belle époque luxury is the majestic Hôtel Negresco. It offers some of the city’s most expensive beds and a chance to step back into that age of extreme refinement. The exquisite Royal Salon combines belle epoch grace with engineering by the great French architect Gustav Eiffel. The chandelier is made of 16,000 pieces of crystal. It was built in France for the Russian Czar's Moscow palace… but, because of the Bolshevik Revolution, he couldn’t take delivery.

Many of Nice’s early visitors were Russians and the city’s Russian Orthodox Church claims to be the finest this side of the Volga.

Five hundred rich Russian families wintered in Nice and needed a worthy Orthodox house of worship. Czar Nicholas II gave this church to the Russian community here in 1912. A few years’ later, Russian comrades — who didn’t winter on the Riviera — shot him.

Here in the land of olives and anchovies, the church’s proud onion domes seem out of place. But, I imagine, so did those Russians.

The interior is filled with icons and candles. The icon wall divides the temporal world of the worshippers from the spiritual world behind it. The angel with red boots and wings is the protector of Russia’s ruling Romanov family. The hammered-copper cross commemorates the massacre of the Czar and his family in 1918. The icon of the Virgin and Child is decorated with silver and semi-precious stones. A priest here told me that, as the worshipper meditates, staring deep into the eyes of an icon, “he enters a lake where he finds his soul.”