1 Jun 2017

Lovely & Nice

Towards the back end of the 19th century, as the quaint small fishing harbours and coastal villages of southern France (Provence and Côte d'Azur) started morphing into the famed vacational hotspot now known as the French Riviera, Nice already was at its cutting edge: it had metamorphosed into a pretty butterfly, opening up to the pleasures of the sea and spreading its wings towards the future, embracing the Belle Epoque follies and later Années Folles (Roaring Twenties)... Its seaside mystique and splendour stretched beyond WWII, yet with less of its earlier upmarket gusto and panache, but this is a story for another time.

La Réserve, c.1900: a fantasmagorical - surrealist - folly that could have been dreamt up by Magritte!

Nice by name was Nice by nature back then: an almost pristine natural canvas of dramatic proportions, lending its coves and curves to architectural wonder, integrating the natural environment - its masterpiece - with style and elegance. The reworked landscape became imbued with a tangible frond of the exotic: imported Phoenix canariensis palm trees and other floral exotica that would lend themselves beautifully to the Orientalist trend of the times.  

Saint-Nicolas Cathedral, c.1935: testifies of the importance of the Russian community in Nice

La Promenade des Anglais would come to epitomise the renowned coastal seafront with dreams of odysseys to faraway exotic locales. A French Ipanema, a wide, tree-lined, five-mile sweep of a boulevard which was (and still is to this day) a destination point for leisure pursuits, parades and ceremonies, dotted with elegant Winter homes that later doubled as Summer villas, set in landscaped grounds and a seaview to boot.

Excelsior Régina Palace, 1912: fit for Queen Victoria

The properties unashamedly belonged to British and Russian aristocracy (and later the nouveau riche) who - it seemed - altogether led the way in terms of the resort culture before the French had even conceptualised it, at least outside their colonies. Progressively the Winter resort turned into a seaside resort with the construction of residential apartments, and leisure establishments such as luxury hotels (palaces) and casinos celebrating luxe, leisure, insouciance and joie de vivre

Nice, Jetée-Promenade, c.1900: an exotica showcase to itself!

In terms of turn-of-the-century architecture, we find a marked influence towards neo-classicism, with oodles of orientalism and a hint of Victoriana: Le Negresco Hotel is a perfect example. Or how about the (now defunct) Orientalist-inspired casino of the Jetée-Promenade? The concept was influenced by the Brighton Palace Pier, while Crystal Palace was the initial inspiration to the project instigator, marquis d'Espouy de Saint-Paul. The casino was designed by British architect James Brunlers. There is no denying that Brits shaped the French Riviera.

Nice, Jetée-Promenade, 1897: the Orient has landed!

La Promenade would be further celebrated with the advent of the automobile era as a G-spot of sorts. Any show-off driver and social climber worth their salt would make a point of showing up and down the Promenade. Success, it was thought, would rub off if only you showed up on the Promenade, unashamedly pretending to be someone you're not for a part of the action while secretly standing in awe of it all.

Nice unfolds from the Mont Boron, 1891

Only a small number of the original villas are still standing on the Promenade today. Some look sorry for themselves, locked in limbo, in need of refurbishment. Land value comes at a premium on the Promenade and it is likely that some of the older properties are locked down in hostile takeovers, expired leases, inheritance issues, tax conundrum or other legal and financial predicaments, ultimately pending a demolition order to make way for yet another high-rise. In the world of real estate emotion hardly has a say, even less so when the matter at stake is located in a sought-after, world-renowned tourist area.

Nice Opera, 1885: all about flamboyance!

Sorry to rub it in but as it stands today the Promenade has lost its lustre. Now it is easy for nostalgia to cloud one's judgement and I recognise that I sometimes allow it to take over my objectivity, yet I approached this particular subject with an open mind and visited the Promenade on at least three separate occasions that I can recall over the last seven years and everytime the lack (loss) of architectural cohesiveness hit me.

Promenade des Anglais and Palais de la Méditerranée, c.1930: cheek to cheek

Clearly building clearance took its toll. Relentless since after WWII, it has left battle scars in the form of an incongruous mish-mash of styles, some of questionable appeal. Cue the gutted Palais de la Méditerranée, whose Art Déco façade was salvaged at the eleventh hour... in order to be incorporated to the Hyatt behemoth. Elsewhere the Promenade is compromised by styleless cheap-looking condos and other bland hotel chains like Le Méridien (which replaced the stylish Hotel Ruhl). These modern structures may unashamedly steal the seaview; they however steal neither the looks nor the spirit of a time where elegance and refinement were the byword.

Avenue de Verdun, c.1920: just off the Promenade

It is understood that Nice City Council wishes for the Promenade to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site contender, and therefore is currently sprucing up its image. Who are they kidding? In this vanity exercise no amount of landscaping or carpark redesign will compensate for the negative architectural impact caused by waves of property clearances that made way for a non-descript, non-cohesive Promenade.

Nice from the Jetée-Promenade, c.1900: a view at your beck and call

The Nice seafront is certainly a tale for the unashamed: bold and beautiful yesterday, bland and brash today. What remains of its bygone golden age, if not found in pockets in-situ, will be appreciated pictorially in the comfort of your home. Prolific and talented French photographer Jean Gilletta (1866-1933) made sure of that by taking thousands of pictures that wrote all to themselves an anthology to Nice, Marseille, the Riviera as a whole, the southern Alps and further afield! He followed the muse and she never left him! His photography froze people, places and time for posterity, immortalised a depiction of Nice that is both haunting and promising, an epoch where all seemed possible...

Motorcar, c.1925: sweet and fancy!

Source: All photography by Jean Gilletta. Take a peek at his impressive collection... and sweet dreams to you! Hey, happy shopper: all the (repro) prints featured are for sale by the way!

'Bateaux dans le Port de Nice', by Tony Minartz (1870-1944)

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