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What's in a name - Nice - Part I

Posted on Monday, 23 August 2010
The street names in many an international city will usually tell a story. As they wind their paths through the town, defining the physical boundaries so too do they often tread a route back through time, sketching the history of the area and telling the story of the city's beginnings if not it's birth.

Many of us have strolled down a Cobblers street, a Shoemakers avenue, a Chancery lane or a Queens Boulevard. Names that paint a simple picture but when you are visiting a different country much gets lost in the translation. In this series of stories Riviera Rental Guide will take a look at some of the street names that appear on the corners of the French and Italian Riviera including the Principality of Monaco.

The most obvious place to start is in Nice. The main gateway into the French Riviera and a much loved holiday spot itself. We'll start with the street that probably defines Nice the most, the Promenade des Anglais.

The original town settlement of Nice was predominantly perched on the top of the Château hill behind city walls. It had a small cove in the area called Ponchettes but no major secure port and it was not a town that depended on the sea for its livelihood. Nice is famously referred to in history as in inward looking town with eyes secured more to the land than to the bounty of the waves.

This was probably due to the dangers that lurked during these early times as pirates and invaders were rife in the coastal waters and savage Mediterranean storms wreaked havoc on small fishing fleets. The lack of interest was based on a fear.

Several things happened that changed that and would turn Nice into the seaside town that it is today. The first was King Louis XIV comprehensive destruction of the old city walls in 1706. This marked an era when Nice was drawn back under the French umbrella, albeit not for the final time. It also served to tumble the city out of it's perched confinement on the hill top and spread out along the natural curve of the Baie des Anges.

The second event of serious import was the arrival of the first British winter visitors. Nice had not been an original port of call of the famous Grand Tour, where wealthy aristocratic children were sent to finish their education on a cultural trip of Europe's capitals and beyond. The first published tales of renowned British writer, Tobias Smollett and his discovery of the town however, inspired the first wave of Brits to Nice in the late 1760's.

The only people who could feasibly travel during that era were only the supremely wealthy so it was an auspicious crowd that gathered in the wild beauty and probably relatively impoverished spectacle of Nice during the 1700's.

The British fell in love with Nice hook, line and sinker and they soon started to build magnificent houses and villas, predominantly along Rue de France and the sea front and the majestic French villas of stunning Belle Epoch architecture started to appear along the coast.

The British always were a sea loving nation and their interest in Nice's mild climate transpired to be something of a prescription note from English doctors who advised their genteel patients, those of a delicate disposition, to travel south to walk and breathe in the fresh, dry sea air of the Mediterranean. This, combined with plenitude of time the idle rich had on their hands, led to the necessity of somewhere pretty to walk, to see and to be seen, and so the idea of the Promenade began to take shape.

Initially a raised walkway along the roof of the Ponchettes between the market square and the sea front was the only area to walk without getting covered in dust and this was known as the Walk of English in the old Nicoise language, Nissart.

The route pushed out along the natural curve of the coast with no intended direction or destination, it was simply a place to stroll where the sea view was accessible. It remained unpaved and dusty for some time but the intent had been created and thereafter followed plantings of exotic gardens, beautiful private villas erected along the way and, in 1863, 30 gas lights dotted along the sweeping now illuminated line.

The Promenade was widened, lengthened, planted and built along. It was busy with coaches, cabs, horses and holiday makers. It became the centre for social gathering in the city and it has remained the heart and soul of the city of Nice ever since.

The Promenade slowly turned the city's head towards the sea, over a period of more than 100 years and showed it's inhabitants what wealth it had on it's doorstep, an abundance of dazzling light, cool sea breezes and expansive sea views. The Promenade des Anglais is still the place to see and be seen, it is the city's front garden where you will always meet a neighbour, even if you have come from as far as Britain, Russia or America.

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