From Place Massena to Place Garibaldi
While in Nice, I decided to put together a little walking tour of the Old Town. It’s a route that you can follow to see most of the historic sites (with lots of shops and restaurants along the way).
Nice’s Old Town is where it all started. At one time this was the entire city, and that’s why so much of Nice’s history is concentrated in this small area.
The walking tour is designed to go along with my book, Curious Histories of Nice, France, but, of course, it can be used without it. The book, however, goes into much more detail about the quirky history and characters of the city. At the end of each section, I list the page number in the book for the associated story. Enjoy your walk through the Old Town!
Place Massena is the heart of the city. Just off this plaza, you’ll notice a park with a shallow water feature from which jets of water spring into the air. It’s called the Promenade du Paillon and it’s named after the Paillon River which still flows beneath it.
The Paillon was one of those rivers that was nearly dry most of the time. But when it rained in the mountains, the water would roar down through it and wash away whatever got caught in its path. In 1867 the river was covered and the water feature is a homage to the river below it. Even the paving stones represent the pools of water in the river bed. – Page 15
Apollo Statue – Fontaine du Soleil
Let’s have a look at the majestic Apollo statue which has quite a funny history. It was installed in 1956 and immediately caused problems. Some of the residents didn’t like the fact that he was naked and, in addition, they thought he was too well endowed. The mayor called the sculptor back to give him a little reduction, but that wasn’t enough. Apollo was sent outside the city center where he wouldn’t offend anyone. He was allowed to come back in 2011.
You might notice the horses on his head. This is a reference to the story that Apollo carries the sun across the sky each day in his chariot pulled by four horses.
The Bronzes around Apollo were buried during the Second World War to keep them from being melted down. They represent five planets. – Page 105
The Old Town
A few tips about the Old Town before we get going:
Street Signs – In the Old Town, street signs are high on the corners of buildings. The top part is in French and the bottom is in Niçois.
Place – Place rhymes with glass. You will see lots of places called Place This or Place That. Place means plaza or square.
Cannon at Noon – At 12:00 noon, you will hear a loud boom. Don’t worry, it’s just the noontime cannon. Today it’s not really a cannon, but it once was. In Victorian times, many wealthy British people spent their winters in Nice. One Scottish Lord was annoyed that his wife would forget to come home and make him lunch. So he supplied the cannon and paid to have it fired every day at noon to remind her it was lunch time. The tradition continues to this day. – Page 52
Papeterie Rontani – Queen Victoria Shopped Here
From the Apollo statue, enter the Old Town by going down the steps to your left (on Apollo’s right). This will be Rue Alexandre Mari. On the first corner you come to, you will see Papeterie Rontani. This is a stationary/ art supply shop where Queen Victoria used to buy her paper supplies. They still proudly display the sign on the side of the building which reads “By Appointment, Stationer to H.M. The Queen Victoria.” – Page 42
City Hall – Hotel de Ville
Turn right on the corner by the Papeterie Rontani. This will be Rue de l’Hotel de Ville and will take you by the Hotel de Ville (City Hall). This is where marriages take place and it’s also home to a large thumb sculpture by César. You can read more about the thumb here.
Turn left on Rue Saint François de Paule. The Opera house will be on your right. There has been an entertainment venue on this spot since 1776. The first opera house burned down in 1881, causing around sixty deaths. Three weeks after the second opera house (this one) opened, an earthquake shook it during a packed performance. It withstood the quake, but after a fire and an earthquake, people were a bit hesitant to go to the opera. – Page 76
Maison Auer – Chocolate Shop
Just across from the opera house is a chocolate shop not to be missed. The furniture on the inside is beautiful and said to be designed by the same architect who did the opera house. Their window displays normally reflect any holidays or special occasions taking place. You can read more about Auer here.
Continue straight ahead and you’ll come to Cours Saleya. There’s a flower, fruit, and vegetable market here every morning except Monday. Monday the area is given over to an antiques/flea market. There are restaurants on both sides that set up dining tables after the market closes. – Page 25
Palais de Sardes – Sarde Palace
About half way down Course Saleya, you will see an open square on the left. At the back of this square is the Sardes Palace. It was built in the early 1600s and was a palace for the Dukes of Savoy. It would have been from these balconies that the king and queen watched and waved at the first carnival parade in 1830. The Niçois loved having a parade so much that the following year the King wasn’t in town so they made a “scarecrow-type king” and put him on the balcony to watch the parade. – Page 29
This little gem of baroque architecture sits in the same square as the Palais de Sardes. It’s not usually open to the public.
On the right side of Cours Saleya, just across from the Palais de Sardes, people used to stroll along the rooftops. The terraces have been closed for years and are now used mostly for air conditioning units, but, if you like, you can climb up the stairs for an overview of Cours Saleya.
At the far end of Cours Saleya you can see a large yellow building where the artist Henri Matisse lived and worked from 1921 to 1938. It is not open to the public.
Adam and Eve House – Maison d’Adam et Eve
Just before the end of Cours Saleya, turn left on Rue de la Poissonnerie. Be sure to look up to see the Adam and Eve Fresco. A Niçois legend says that after they were kicked out of the Garden of Eden they went to the next most beautiful place on earth (that’s Nice, of course). – Page 4
Continue to the end of Rue de la Poissonnerie. On your left you’ll see the Loge Communale – a small arcaded space with bits of architecture from Old Nice. The sphinx used to decorate a column that stood near Place Massena. It was given to the King by the Jewish population of Nice. The column was demolished in 1861 and the sphinx went up to Castle Hill (colline du chateau) where they were on the balustrade of the waterfall. You can read about Castle Hill on Page 56.
With your back to the Loge Communale, go right on Rue de la Prefecture to Rue Droite. Turn left on Rue Droite.
Natural Air Conditioning
As you walk along Rue Droite, look for the grills over the doorways that let in the cool air from the street. This fresh air then travels up a narrow central courtyard to cool the building. Also note the narrow streets and the shutters with a central part that swings open. This is the Old Town’s all-natural cooling system. – Page 21
As you walk along this street, you will see several openings on your right that have stairs. Any of these will take you up to the Colline du Chateau (Castle Hill). But there is also an elevator just off the Promenade. – Page 56 (Castle Hill)
Place du Jesus
You will come to a small plaza, Place du Jesus, which is in front of a 17th century baroque church called Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur dite le Gesu (called the Gesu – or Jesus). Just across from the church is the Restaurant of Gesu. Look for their funny sign painted on the building of an angel eating their “heavenly” food.
Socca and Chez Theresa
Socca is a type of chickpea pancake and is a Niçois speciality. And Chez Theresa is a socca restaurant known for its unusual delivery system. When they are selling socca from their stall at the morning market on Cours Saleya, they cook it here on Rue Droite and deliver it on a specially adapted motorized bike. If it’s not in use, you might see the bike sitting outside the shop at 28 Rue Droite.. – Page 127
At 15 Rue Droite, you’ll find a mid-seventeenth century palace. It’s very easy to miss because the exterior is unremarkable, but the inside is beautiful. It’s now a museum with a collection of musical instruments. There is an entry fee.
Just after Palais Lascaris you will come to a cross street called Rue de la Loge. Look up at the corner of the building to see a cannon ball. The plaque says: “Cannonball fired by the Turkish fleet in the 1543 siege of Nice in which Catherine Segurana distinguished herself.” Chatherine Segurana is a Niçoise heroine who drove away the Turkish army by flashing them. We’ll talk more about her later.
Go left on Rue de la Loge to a small plaza called Place Central. Then go left on Rue Centrale. Follow it (the name changes to Rue Mascoinat) and you will end up in Place Rossetti.
Place Rossetti is a lively plaza where you’ll find St Reparate Cathedral . It was built in honor of Saint Reparate whose decapitated body was guided to Nice by angels. You’ll also find one of Nice’s most popular ice cream stands, Fennochio’s. They have just about any flavor you can think of. While in Place Rossetti, look for the tall, skinny building. – Page 4
The False Door – La Porte Fausse
From Place Rossetti, go down the right side of the Cathedral which is Rue Francis Gallo. Follow it all the way to the end and you will see a beautiful stairway surrounded by arches and marble. You might notice the inscription “porte fausse” which means false door. When the old city was surrounded by a wall, there was a small, hidden gate here. It could be used to escape when the city was under siege, and in times of peace it was a quick way to the river. The decoration of this archway was part of a project to place art all along the tramway. Read more about it here.
Fish Market – Place Saint Francis
At the False Door, turn right on to Rue de la Boucherie and meander along among the shops. You’ll come back to Place Central. This time go to the left of the building in front of you on Rue du Collet.
Continue on Rue du Collet, and you’ll come to a small plaza on your left called Place Saint Francis. There is a fish market here in the mornings. Usually there are seagulls hanging around on top of the fountain to clean up any left-over scraps that might have fallen to the ground.
Catherine Segurane Monument
Continue on Rue St Francois which becomes Rue Pairolière then turn right where you see signs for Monument à Catarina Segurana and La Treille on the side of a building – this is Rue Saint Augustin. Go up a few stairs and you will see a building called La Treille. Go up the right side of this building which will also be Rue Saint Augustin. You will come to a small plaza with a nice baroque-style church (St Martin and St Augustin).
Just across from the church there is a bas-relief monument to Catherine Segurane (or Catarina Segurana in Niçois). It’s on part of the old city wall where this laundress drove away the Turkish army. The city was under siege from the Turkish and French armies (Nice wasn’t French at the time). Catherine saw a Turk climbing the wall intending to plant the Turkish flag and claim victory. She ran up with her laundry paddle and knocked him off. She grabbed the Turkish flag and ripped it up. Then she turned around and mooned the Turkish army which decided to retreat. Every year, there’s a litte ceremony here to celebrate Catherine lifting her skirt to drive away the enemy. – Page 9
Go back down the way you came. Down Rue Saint Augustin to La Treille then down the stairs to Rue Pairolière (the shopping street) and go right. Follow this street to the end where you will leave the Old Town.
Now you can turn right to enter Place Garibaldi. It’s a lovely square surrounded by yellow buildings painted with trompe-l’œil architectural details. It’s named after Guiseppe Garibaldi, a politician and soldier who was firmly against Nice becoming French. – Page 31
And that concludes our tour of the Old Town. Hope you enjoyed it. The walking route and the mentioned sites can be seen on the map below. And if you want to read more in depth stories about these sites and many others in Nice, you can find them in my book, Curious Histories of Nice, France.
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