In her later years, Queen Victoria loved to spend her winters on the French Riviera. While in Nice, she could let her hair down and enjoy herself, often touring around in a little donkey cart.
Queen or Spice Girl?
One evening while dining with a British friend and his teenage daughter, we were talking about the British influence in Nice. Our friend said, “I think the tourism really picked up after Victoria came here”. His daughter perked up, “Victoria Beckham?”
No, the history of British tourism in Nice goes back much further than the Beckhams. In the 1800s the French Riviera had so many British visitors, that the term “English” became synonymous with “tourist”. And one of the most influential tourists was, of course, Queen Victoria of England, who used the name ‘Lady Balmoral’ while on holiday. (Was this an effort to keep a low profile?)
Vicky Arrives in Style
When the Queen (I mean Lady Balmoral) began to visit Nice, she was 76 years old, short, round and always dressed in black. She would arrive in her own special train, accompanied by close to 100 staff members. These included Scottish soldiers wearing kilts and playing bagpipes and Indian soldiers wearing turbans. The train carried wagon loads of luggage, not counting the Queen’s bed and other furniture which arrived ahead of her and was already set up in the 80 hotel rooms that she rented in the hills of Cimiez. Also sent in advance were her carriages, horses and a donkey… yes, a donkey.
Vicky Buys a Donkey
Jacquot (pronounced Jacko) was the donkey the Queen bought on one of her holidays in Provence. She had trouble walking and was frustrated because her carriage was too large to take her down the many intriguing alleyways she wanted to explore. When she saw a peasant with a small cart pulled by a handsome but underfed donkey, she stopped and asked the man how much he had paid for the poor beast. He responded, “100 francs”. The Queen said, “I will give you 200”. The deal was done and travelling behind Jacquot in her little donkey cart became her favourite mode of transportation for short excursions.
We can imagine that Jacquot was well fed from then on. He travelled back and forth between England and France with the Queen and even to other European countries. He later retired and spent his last days at Windsor.
When in Nice, Victoria would take her full English breakfast (with musical accompaniment) in the hotel garden, weather permitting. After a few hours of paperwork, she would climb into her donkey cart and tootle around the gardens of Cimiez with Jacquot. After the garden visits, queen and donkey would return to the hotel for lunch.
Vicky was a “Curious Rambler”
After lunch she ventured out further in a larger carriage pulled by horses. She would meander through the hills and along the coast, visiting interesting sites and towns in the area. She stopped to watch games of boules (similar to lawn bowling), attended the gourd festival, the carnival (where she reportedly threw flowers at handsome young soldiers), and attended any other local festivity she happened upon. She exhibited a curiosity about everything that she encountered.
Vicky Had a Soft Spot for Nice
Victoria had wintered in other areas along the Riviera, but once she discovered Nice she kept returning. She spent 5 successive winters in Nice, from 1895-1899. The following winter she had to forgo her Nice holiday because of the controversy surrounding the British actions in the Boer Wars. Then the next year, in 1901, while wintering on the Isle of Wight she took ill and died. It is reported that she said, “If only I was in Nice, I would get better”.
The Queen is commemorated in Nice with a statue in front of the Hotel Regina-Excelsior in Cimiez where she stayed. There is also “Avenue Reine Victoria” named for her in the area where she used to ride in her donkey cart in Cimiez.
Find Out More – You can read more about the history of Nice in my book, Curious Histories of Nice, France.
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