Magazine article The Spectator

Regret, Guilt and Exhilaration

Magazine article The Spectator

Regret, Guilt and Exhilaration

Article excerpt

Miranda Seymour HIGH SEASON IN NICE by Robert Kanigel Little, Brown, L17.99, pp. 316, ISBN 0316854956

EDITH WHARTON'S FRENCH RIVIERA by Philippe Collas and Eric Villedary Flammarion, L22.50, pp. 149, ISBN 2080107224

London, even in normal years, is rained on for 150 days to Nice's 60; it receives a paltry 1,500 hours of sunlight in comparison to Nice's enviable 2,700. And yet, despite the town's proud boast of having 1,000 hotels and 3,000 restaurants, most passengers arriving on the 170 flights which land daily at Nice airport are heading for another part of the Cote d'Azur. The charm of the Matisse and Chagall museums are insufficient compensation for a hideous flyover, an overpriced antiques market and the polluted ugliness of Nice's famous Promenade des Anglais. The town which Alexander Herzen, visiting it in the 1850s, called `warm, sweetsmelling Nice, quiet and completely empty' is unimaginable.

The railway, brought down to Nice in 1865, began the transformation of a sleepy, overgrown fishing resort into a fashionable winter haven, a town dominated by gigantic hotels and elegant villas built on the heights of Cimiez. Queen Victoria, arriving on the royal train with 60 servants, stayed at the Excelsior Regina; with places such as the Hotel des Anglais, the Hotel d'Angleterre and the Hotel de la Grande Bretagne to stay in, and London House and Garden House to lunch at, the English visitors of the 1880s felt entirely at home.

All this changed radically after the war. The transformers were the Americans who discovered that the grand villas could be rented for almost nothing out of season, during the summer months. Cole Porter, the Fitzgeralds and their friends, the Murphys, along with almost every famous American you can care to think of, discovered the charms of sunbathing, beach games, driving at speed along the High Corniche and dancing until the sun came up. Coco Chanel was seen looking famously `brown as a cabin-boy'; beach pyjamas and large hats gave way to tight tiny shorts and sun-bleached crops. For the stuffier residents, among whom Edith Wharton can be placed, the change was not an improvement.

Kanigel makes a chattily informal guide to the development of Nice as a tourist resort. He is at his best when he turns serious, describing what it was like to live in Nice between 1939, when the first Cannes film festival was abruptly cancelled, and 1944, when the Allies freed it from German control. …

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