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Riviera postcards
Honeymooning in Nice

August 29, 2001
The Iranian

As our plane flew over the glittering Bay of Angels my wife leaned over my shoulder and squeezed my hand. We were beginning our honeymoon and the thought of spending it in Nice filled us with great excitement. Basking in the Mediterranean sun, France's most visited city after Paris revealed herself like a series of moving postcards.

From the air we marvelled at the fashionable palm-lined waterfront with its hotels and pebbled beaches. One could almost pick out the dome of the Negresco, the lighthouse and the crowded old port and the narrow alleys and vibrant markets of the Vieille Ville.

Two hours after leaving London we landed at Nice airport. Grabbing our two suitcases we caught a white taxi to our hotel on Avenue Victor Hugo. During the short ride we caught a glimpse of the huge palm trees that graced the town's main promenade aptly named after the English who in the 1860s had made Nice a sedate resort for themselves. In fact some of the building reminded me of Brighton or Eastbourne.

Our four-star hotel turned out to be a comfortable place with a spacious balcony overlooking the red-tiled roofs of nearby villas. There was a small swimming pool on the roof and a bar. After a swim and a light lunch we returned to our room for a long and much needed nap. By four in the afternoon we were ready to explore the sunny city.

Nice must be the only place where people sit on blue chairs admiring the Mediterranean as if nothing else mattered in life. On the Promenade des Anglais people of all ages and background find a certain tranquillity hard to find anywhere else.

The Quai des Etas Unis was teeming with sporty youngsters showing off their skills in rollerskating, older citizens walking their dogs and ice-cream vans selling their best flavours.

It is not difficult to understand the lure of Nice for it has attracted visitors for over two centuries, from Queen Victoria to Madonna, from Mattise to Chagal, Vladimir Nabokov and Tony Curtis. Numerous artists, writers and a dominant British, American, Russian and Iranian expatriate community have all found homes and influence here.

By seven o'clock the old buildings in the Cours Saleya had assumed the colour of melting butter or tomato red. Here we decided to have dinner at one of the many fine sea-food restaurants. It was a great place to watch people. The old part of Nice is full of tiny shops tucked away in winding streets where you can buy flowers, perfume, and chocolates.

At night the streets were alive with jazz music. Looking down at Nice and the bay at the foot of the ruined Chateau was like beholding a sparkling jewelled necklace.

The sky was clear and the jets that crossed it landed at the tip of the coast like giant birds. Once again the famous blue chairs appeared to grant us a chance to rest our feet and admire the city. In the lush Albert gardens was a noisy fountain and the air was deliciously sultry. How good it felt to sit under a giant palm, holding hands, being in love.

Back at the hotel we had a midnight swim and later we sat on our balcony pointing to the glorious moon above us. It was a full moon and for a brief and deceptive moment my wife and I felt we had been here before, many years ago, thousands of miles away in Baghdad and Shiraz. Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs and many other races had probably seen the same moon in the lengthy history of Nice named after the God of Victory.

In the morning we took our breakfast on the balcony. Coffee, croissants and apricot jam. A copy of the local paper Nice-Matin ran a lengthy commemorative piece on Isadora Duncan. In 1927 the famous eccentric American dancer had choked to death when her long scarf had been tragically caught between the turning wheel of her automobile while speeding down the promenade. The residents of Nice had been in shock for a few days then had slowly returned to their daily business of enjoying themselves.

Our first stop that Sunday morning in July was the Negresco, a monument to the Belle Epoch and frivolous years between the two great world wars. Perhaps the most impressive part of this folly was its grand salon with a huge crystal chandelier weighing several tons in the middle and a constellation of coloured sofas arranged in a circular fashion for visitors. The circular walls were graced with enormous portraits of French kings and beautiful aristocratic ladies. Later we lunched at one of the many sea-side restaurants beside a painting museum and flipped through the pages of a book on Nice.

In the afternoon we set out to the Russian Church near the main Nice railway station. The iron gates were firmly locked but the sight of the orthodox building with its onion-shaped domes and golden cross was an eerie experience. Built by Tsarist Russians in the 19th century it stood there among the trees surrounded by moorish villas like a relic of a bygone era. It is a well-known fact that many of the Russians who came to Nice before the 1917 revolution as rich tourists ended up as impoverished exiles forced to make a living as coachmen, or doormen at hotels and casinos.

One of the delights of Nice is its fading glory. There are many quiet streets with lemon trees and bougainvillea leaning over the high walls of Italian style villas. There must have been a time when their rooms played host to scandalous parties and amorous encounters between champagne-drinking Russian aristocrats and their giddy mistresses. At dusk these precious villas stood like muted strangers unwilling to yield their dark secrets.

In the evening the Promenade des Anglais was teeming with happy people. A long walk to the harbour brought us face-to-face with the super-rich relaxing aboard their first-class yachts moored here. Each vessel seemed to be bigger than the next and I shuddered at their cost. We strolled back feeling relaxed and exercised, our legs hurting.

On our third day we decided against visiting Baron Rothschild's grand villa and opted for Monaco instead. Boarding a small train we journeyed along the azure coastline passing the millionaire haven of Cap Ferrat, Beaulieu-sur-Mer and Cap d'Ail where Grace Kelly drove Cary Grant for a picnic in that memorable comedy "To Catch A Thief".

Twenty minutes later we arrived in Monte Carlo. From the moment we left the clean station we entered a fantasy world. Taking a stroll downhill we passed a few chic hotels and apartments. In the shadow of the Grand Casino with our backs to the sea we sat under a parasol and ordered soft drinks and toasted sandwiches.

I have never been a gambling man but a visit to Monaco would not be complete without a peek inside the legendary casino. It was in this place that the famous spy Mata Harri shot a secret service man dead with a pistol in self-defence and where James Bond beat his arch-enemy at the roulette tables. In real life the casino has seen many fortunes won and lost.

Monaco is probably the most unreal place in the world. In this place retired movie-stars laze in the shade showing off their expensive jewellery. They wear huge sun-glasses and spend time complaining about the agitated sea and the public pools that have banned senior citizens from walking their poodles. There are rich foreigners and beautiful people. Iraqis and Iranians are well-loved by the shop keepers and get huge discounts.

Opposite the casino is a trendy café where dubious women, mostly tall-legged brunettes, sit alone waiting to ensnare a wealthy man. Sometimes businessmen join in and exchange sweet-nothings with the ladies while millionaires circle the square looking for a place to park their expensive cars. The atmosphere is friendly, the bill is not!

After shopping at the Metropol gallery my wife and I had a quick look inside the Hotel de Paris, one of the most luxurious hotels in the world and the haunt of the rich and famous. The lobby has a statue of Louis XIV on horseback and the staff stand like sentinels around the place. Alexandre Reza has a jewellery boutique there and the main restaurant has attracted the likes of Sophia Loren, Roger Moore, ex-queen Soraya plus various heads of state in recent times. A few years ago a wealthy Iranian threw an opulent wedding party for his beautiful daughter. The event is still the talk of the town.

Before sunset we passed the harbour and climbed up to the Grimaldi Palace. Somehow either because we were tired or since it was late in the day the palace came as a disappointment. However there were a few interesting back-streets beyond the main square leading to the Cathedral where Princess Grace had married Prince Rainier. In a small chapel, closed during our visit, was her tomb and one could feel her spirit there.

We returned to France late in the evening nearly missing our train. On our last day in Nice, after another big breakfast, my wife went out to get a French haircut. I on the other hand went for a stroll. I moved down the tree-lined Avenue Victor Hugo to the busy Place Massena characterised by smart boutiques and the inescapable red buildings that formed a square. By noon the blue skies had disappeared. The town had become windy.

I wrote a few postcards before joining Shuhub for lunch at a terrace restaurant. By now a certain gloom had overtaken us as we realised that we were leaving Nice in a few hours. An amusing French waiter listening to our conversation shook his shoulders, handed over the bill and said, "If you like Nice so much then you must stay a little bit longer!" We laughed for the thought of moving to Nice permanently was dashed by rain and thunderstorms.

The drive back to the airport was less romantic as our bad-tempered taxi driver sped along the ugly industrial parts. For a moment it seemed to me as if what we had seen earlier of Nice had only been a façade for tourists. Briefly I glimpsed at the rising domes of the Russian Church and sighed heavily as they sank out of sight.

When our plane lifted into the sky we had a lump in our throats. Nice we agreed was a place of blue chairs, beach worshippers, flower markets, yachts, music, food, wine and spectacular scenery complimented by glorious blue sea. We vowed to return again next year.

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