TEXT & PHOTOS  – Nina Hazhala

I HAVE BEEN ALWAYS FASCINATED by seaside towns in winter. I recently talked about it with a friend, and we came to the conclusion that it’s simply because there is great beauty in the emptiness and winter neglect of a once very busy summer resort. The desolation of a previously crowded place feels far more intense and, together with that, a town once so extroverted and belonging to everyone in a loud tourist crowd, can finally be yours as you bond with it in a more intimate way.

WHILE PLANNING MY TRIP TO PARIS, I saved two days for an escape to the winter shores of the Cote d’Azur. I decided to use the train* as my transportation of choice. First, because in Paris I lived just 15 minutes away from the Gare de Lyon train station; and second, because I had absolutely no desire to travel through the entire city to the airport, and then endure the hassle of air travel. I love people watching, too, especially in countries new to me. And the train is the perfect place for that (as well as watching beautiful scenery). So after five and a half hours, I got out at Nice-ville station and took my route to the hotel.

Well, Nice was not exactly an empty city in January. With a population of around 350,000 people, it is pretty big and is also the capital of the Alpes-Maritimes region. (Doesn’t the name itself sounds amazing? Alpes + Mari (sea), what can be better than that blend?)

However, taking into consideration that Nice attracts five million visitors annually, mostly during the high seasons, this gem of the French Riviera in January was not crowded at all. In fact, it was relatively quiet and serene.

Almost-empty beaches, plenty of seats on the legendary Promenade des Anglais, semi-vacant Plage cafes… All that created a feeling that the city belonged to me only.

NICE GREETED ME with warm and sunny weather (18C/64F). It felt amazing in comparison with chilly and rainy Paris (and especially freezing-cold Chicago). “Nice in January is for acquiring harmony by watching the sea, drinking Aperol Spritz on La Plage, and evening conversation on the terraces in the old town,” advised me Alyona Malysheva, the talent behind Nice is Love blog (and who is very passionate about sharing her infatuation with the city). I always prefer to listen to locals’ recommendations, and after checking in at the Hotel Villa Rivoli**, I took a walk to the Promenade des Anglais. I sat on one of the chairs just watching the sea’s amazing azure color, and enjoying the sounds of waves that were hitting the pebbled shore, the screeching and squawking of seagulls flying in circles overhead and searching for food, and the airy melody of a street saxophonist chilling nearby. I was so happy to breathe in this warm and salty air, to be showered with the generous rays from the sun, and to contemplate the Belle Epoque architecture peeking through the promenade’s lush palm trees.

Hotel Villa Rivoli
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I didn’t want to leave the seashore, so I relocated downstairs to one of the beach cafes. I enjoyed the fact that it wasn’t just a place with a designated area for the tables. The tables stand right on the pebbles, covered with white tablecloths, the way I like it. I ordered myself un café allongé to energize a little after being defrocked by the sun, and a glass of Aperol Spritz according to the Nice winter tradition.

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DESPITE THE LONG LIST OF PLACES I had prepared to visit in Nice, I decided to stroll the streets instead and stay in close proximity to the sea. I walked up the Promenade to the Castle of Nice, the most famous public garden in the city, as it offers amazing panoramic views of the city and the bay from above. For those who want to enjoy the hazy, golden-purplish sunsets over the city beaches, it is the perfect location. Another great location for breathtaking sunsets is Mont Boron, where you can hike, see a waterfall and have a picnic. A baguette***, some cheese and a bottle of wine would do the job.

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HERE IS MY LITTLE LIST of things to do in Nice (as recommended by the locals and experienced by truly yours):

  • Have a traditional French breakfast (bread, jam, and butter) at La Femme Du Boulanger. For my order, I had a sizable basket of various fresh bread slices, butter, honey and seven (!) jars of assorted jams.
  • Stop at Déli Bo Patisserie for delicious pastries (I choose a tart with framboise) and great coffee.
  • Drink Aperol Spritz with a slice of fresh orange at “Blue Beach” Plage café.
  • Visit the Musée Marc Chagall. The museum has the largest public collection of Chagall’s work. It was created with the cooperation of the artist himself, who not only curated the exhibit, but installed the immense mosaic, designed the stained glass for the concert hall, specified the layout of the gardens, and chose the exact placement of each of his works in the museum. It is a lovely way to spend an afternoon and have a cup of coffee in the outdoor gardens.
  • Treat yourself to luxurious L’Afternoon tea delight at the legendary Hotel Negresco. The price ranges from 39 Euros (“Classique”) to 139 Euros (“Prestige”).
  • Have aperitif at Café des Chineurs. It is a really pleasant place for sitting in the sun and watching the world go by. I was impressed with its eclectic and colorful interior and A Mamá Rosa cocktail (Ron Cubano, cointreau, pamplemousse, and rose syrup).
  • Have traditional Niçoise food at Les Amis de Chez Pipo, which has famous socca, pissaladière, and le pan bagnat. The list of other traditional Niçoise must-haves include: ratatouille (did you know Ratatouille originated in Nice?); raviolis Niçoise (with a delicious filling of braised beef daube de boeuf); soupe au pistou (a popular Provençal dish of bean soup enriched with pistou); and of course, moules et frites or mussels and fries (which is not necessarily Provençal or Niçoise as it originated in Belgium, but it’s sold just about everywhere in Nice; the most common is Moules marinière made with white wine, shallots, parsley, and butter.)
  • Enjoy Mediterranean seafood dinner at La Langouste. Its cuisine is creative and bold; the setting is drop-dead gorgeous; the interior garden is sweet, airy, and intimate; and service was top-notch. La Langouste has been recognized “Restaurant de Qualité” by the Collège Culinaire de France.
  • Drink a glass (or two) of wine and listen to live jazz at La Cave Dalpozzo. They have a very good selection of red and white wines and a wonderful atmosphere. The owners are friendly and endeavored.
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WHEN I ASKED MY FRIENDS, Chloé and Ludovic, who live in the city, what would be the most winter Nice-an thing to do, they said: Skiing in the nearby Alps in the morning, and having dinner by the sea in the afternoon. This type of pastime says it all about the beauty of this wonderful gem of the Cote d’Azur. And I will save this advice for my next winter visit, that will follow for sure. Because I am irrevocably in love with Nice.

* I bought my tickets from Loco 2. They had the most competitive prices: Do not hesitate to check prices for First Class, as sometimes they can be just a few dollars more expensive than Second Class, or even cheaper. It is always better to buy train tickets in advance; sales are open three months before the date you wish to travel, and the earlier you buy the more options for cheap fair you would have.

** Those who follow my Instagram know my fascination with all things antique, vintage and historical. While choosing my home away from home in Nice, I wanted my hotel to be close to the sea (Hotel Villa Rivoli is just two blocks away from the Promenade des Anglais), and I wanted it to be small, with an intimate feel (it is a small boutique spot settled in a Romantic 19th – century Belle Epoque mansion built by the local architect Monsieur Blanchi). After I read that all the rooms there are gracefully and elegantly decorated with vintage furniture and art pieces “a la francaise,” I made my choice.

*** Choose your baguette, as well as other delicious baked goods, from Boulangerie-Patisserie Jeannot. It also has an outside sitting area where you can enjoy coffee with a croissant or … whatever you wish.

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Editor – David Podgurski