Christmas in Nice offers plenty to the solo traveller, says Anne Cowan
For the lone traveller keen to escape the frantic fuss of Christmas, there is no refuge quite like the Côte d’Azur. Those old tsars, stars and aristocrats – the Riviera’s smart set – knew a thing or two about getting away from it all. And if you’re planning a solo getaway over the festive period, Nice is still the perfect destination.
According to the tourist office, there is no off-season in Nice. However I’m delighted to have discovered that there is; it falls just before and after Christmas and New Year. That’s when the resort settles down to being the fifth biggest city in France, dressed largely in casual clothes, just like the rest of us.
Total immersion in France is what this holiday is all about, and the absence of suntanned shoulders and strappy high heels enables northern visitors to merge in more seamlessly. Of course, Nice does don its glad rags as evening falls; the festive lights and decorations, Christmas market, big funfair wheel and skating rink are thronged with locals, all wrapped up as if it were cold.
Going solo and car-free, it’s best to live in the middle of town. The lone traveller invariably pays over the odds, so a small, friendly, budget hotel fits the bill. You want to be able to step outside, early or late and be in among Niçois of all ages and their bustling cafés. Being handy for the excellent city and regional public transport is another must.
Hôtel Régence on lively, pedestrianised Rue Masséna (tel: (Fr) 4 93 87 75 08, www.hotelregence.com) is a good option. It’s a couple of minutes’ walk from tram and bus stops, gardens and the Promenade des Anglais and in the morning I can look down on the passers-by and general morning activity as the shops open up. Breakfast is the same as at home i.e. coffee, croissant and crossword in a café; I would be failing in my touristly duty if I did not spend a lot of my time here in cafés.
At a newspaper kiosk, I pick up my constant companion and comfort blanket, the paper they quaintly call ‘The Times of London’. Most mornings I head for the Vieille Ville and Nice market. That’s default mode if I am not catching a bus to Antibes, Cannes, Grasse, Vence, or some breathtaking perched village.
If it’s sunny, I find an outdoor table where flower, fruit and vegetable stalls add atmosphere in more ways than one. On rainy days the long tables in the Le Coin Quotidien (tel: (Fr) 4 93 62 94 32) in Rue Louis Gassin are ideal for people watching. On a beautiful morning it’s tempting to take a 15-minute bus journey along the Basse Corniche to have breakfast on the quay at Villefranche.
It only takes five minutes more to reach the waterfront cafés and yachts of Beaulieu-sur-Mer. On Cap Ferrat, between these two towns, are the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild and gardens (tel: (Fr) 4 93 01 33 09, www.villa-ephrussi.com), and Villa Kerylos (tel: (Fr) 4 93 01 01 44, www.villa-kerylos.com). These were built for two wealthy connoisseurs, cousins by marriage, whose family story is told in Edmund de Waal’s book, The Hare with Amber Eyes.
As if climate, nature and history had not endowed the Riviera with enough riches, there is art. Not only can visitors explore the two stunning early 20th-century villas and their collections, but the region has Picasso, Cocteau, Chagall, Bonnard, Renoir and Leger museums among others.
There’s food for body and soul at La Colombe d’Or (tel: (Fr) 4 93 32 80 02, www.la-colombe-dor.com), just below the walls of the ancient perched village, Saint-Paul de Vence, where Chagall lived. This once humble restaurant has works by Picasso, Matisse and other celebrated artist/diners on the walls and delicious food on the menu. I have had lunch there and, nearby that day, so did Jack Nicholson.
But more typical of my diet is a simple but excellent cheese omelette, green salad and a glass of red wine coasting around €8.50 at Lou Break kfé (tel: (Fr) 4 93 81 79 63) in Boulevard Jean Juarèz in Nice. Le Pin Parasol (tel: (Fr) 4 93 34 12 67), Antibes is a favourite restaurant, as are Achill’s (tel: (Fr) 4 93 88 72 90) in Villefranche and Café de la Fontaine (tel: (Fr) 4 93 28 52 79) in La Turbie.
Both La Turbie and Èze, perched high above the Mediterranean, are unmissable. While, in the past, I have gone on away-days by train or train/bus to Genoa, San Remo, Saint-Tropez and up-country to Digne, I have not yet flown to Ajaccio, Corsica, where it’s possible to spend three or four hours. In January Air Corsica often has very cheap flights from Nice.
For the solo traveller, nothing is a compromise – whim and sudden fancies rule. You can live on fruit, cheese and juice from the market and find cheap places in old towns for good soup, pasta and salads. For a weekly bus pass coasting €15 (www.lignesdazur.com), the most glamorous coastline in the world awaits you. So why not go berserk with a coffee and éclair in Le Bar Américaine of the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo (tel: (Monaco) 98 06 38 38, www.montecarlosbm.com), or Sunday brunch in the Carlton (tel: (Fr) 4 93 06 40 06, www.intercontinental.com) in Cannes? No need to feel awkward and wallow in solitude, get out the crossword. A frantic Christmas is not compulsory, bucket list compilers, please take note.
WHERE TO STAY
21 rue Massena,
(0)4 93 87 75 08
Well run, clean, friendly, good value three-star hotel in great location.
Rooms from €65.
FOR AN APERO
Le Relais bar,
37 Promenade des Anglais,
(0)4 93 16 64
Walnut panelled bar, grand but with cosy atmosphere and live music every night.
WHERE TO EAT
2 Quai Amiral Courbet,
(0)4 93 88 72 90
Quayside restaurant serving good local food with terrace offering views over the bay of Villefranche.
Menu from €14.90.
Le Pin Parasol,
5 Traverse du 24 août,
0(4) 93 34 12 67
Small, family-run café, which is popular with the locals.
Menu from €14.
Le Café de la Fontaine,
4 avenue du Général de Gaulle,
(0)4 93 28 52 79
An old, local cafe serving good simple food with outside seating.
Menu from €15.